The Dark Side of Jargon

A while ago, I did a series of posts on the uses and misuses of academic jargon; I established that all disciplines eventually develop hazes of impenetrable terminology, that some jargon came across as more authoritative than others, and, finally, that the public can often have difficulty distinguishing between legitimate arguments and complete bullshit disguised in jargon.

Recently, however, I’ve realized that it’s not only the public which can be confused by pseudo-academic jargon; actual specialists (or at least people who should know better) can be similarly confused, so long as the jargon is used to support a belief in which they already have a deep enough interest*. And this is not just true of academic jargon–it is true of ideological rhetoric as well.

Nowhere is this more pernicious than when it is used to legitimize old bigotries in the eyes of practitioners of new ideologies. For example, during the late middle ages, theologians supposed (using the rhetoric of Christianity) that women were naturally inferior to men due to deficiency of faith in God. This attitude is nicely exemplified by a bit of pseudo-etymology in The Hammer of Witches:

And it is clear in the case of the first woman that she had little faith; for when the serpent asked why they did not eat of every tree in Paradise, she answered: Of every tree, etc. – lest perchance we die. Thereby she showed that she doubted, and had little in the word of God. And all this is indicated by the etymology of the word; for Femina comes from Fe and Minus, since she is ever weaker to hold and preserve the faith. And this as regards faith is of her very nature; although both by grace and nature faith never failed in the Blessed Virgin, even at the time of Christ’s Passion, when it failed in all men.
Therefore a wicked woman is by her nature quicker to waver in her faith, and consequently quicker to abjure the faith, which is the root of witchcraft.

Naturally, after the Enlightenment, the script was flipped so that women were now inferior due to a deficiency of reason. Of course, neither claim is meant to provide anything but the barest ideological window-dressing. The point is not to make a coherent argument; the point is to allow supporters of the ideology not to have to think too deeply about the roots of their own bigotry.

And, of course, you can see the exact same thing in western (especially white) feminism**. To wit; you have hundreds to thousands of years of patriarchy in the western world, rigidly enforcing gender roles, commodifying sexuality, and ruthlessly punishing and demonizing those*** who reject the life-plan society imposes upon them as a result of the shape of their genitals at birth. Then, you start to have women critiquing this system, assembling a coherent critique of it; they evolve their own academic jargon to support this critique, and then–surprise, surprise–this jargon gets re-purposed to attack an already-marginalized community (namely transgender women) whom everyone already hated anyways. The same pattern has played out with sex workers, with women of colour,  with lesbians, and with anyone else for whom ideological framers may have had a deep and abiding hatred.

You can see examples of this virtually every time a new idea comes to the fore: Christianity, Marxism, liberalism, scientific rationalism–the list goes on. If you have a new way of looking at the world, and this way of looking at the world applies even tangentially to Human affairs, then it is virtually certain that someone, somewhere, will take your rhetoric and use it justify their own bigotries.


*I like to think that physicists are insulated against this effect, since most of the things that we research are far enough away from the Human scale that we have fewer preconceived notions about them. Even so, you will occasionally find (for example) some legitimate physicists who have bought-in to Quantum Mysticism.

**I’m about to give a drastically oversimplified history, but bear with me.

***Including those who, in a modern context, would probably be called ‘transgender.’


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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