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Snark and scholarship

I was thinking a lot today about language and the precision—or lack thereof—in much of our communication. Thanks to bloglines, which occasionally digs up interesting posts related to “sociology” for me (here in quotes to designate it as a keyword, rather than for scare purposes), I came across a post that attacks the perceived misuse of language by liberals and academics.

Taking the learned professoriate down a peg or two is a favorite hobby of some, as I guess there is great satisfaction in proving them to be out of touch, incompetent, and otherwise ignorant of the real world. But while I readily acknowledge that some academics wrongly use their knowledge of a relatively narrow (and perhaps obscure and even boring—but certainly not in my case) field to claim jurisdiction over many fields of knowledge (the post in question takes gender scholars to task for trying to pull rank in etymology, for instance), I don’t think there is any kind of strong case that this characterizes the broad world of academics.

The post begins with the idea that the words of academics have no more weight than those of anybody else, which in plenty of situations is undoubtedly true. (Though his etymological example has, I think, more complexity than he allows.) But he moves from this proposition to the idea that academics are essentially corrupt, supporting arguments that they know to be false, a jump that only seems possible by misreading or misrepresenting the evidence at hand.

In this case, and this is where the issue of language comes into play, the author suggests that because some academics overreach, not only is the academy intellectually bankrupt (the author has particular scorn for sociology; “of course” Todd Gitlin is a sociologist) but Michael Moore is also full of shit. He does this, as far as I can tell, by eliding the most significant point of Todd Gitlin’s review of Fahrenheit 9/11, which is not to haughtily mock “beer-swilling Red State denizens” (as Doug H. suggests is a main avocation of academic types), but to lament the poor state of political discourse in America. According to Gitlin, we cannot engage in politics—and in particular, cannot even get attention for politically-charged issues—without cheap shots, propoganda, sensationalism, and insinuation. When Gitlin celebrates Moore as the “most compelling, useful filmmaker of the 21st century,” it is with a “so far” and a great sigh of regret that it takes unscrupulous demagoguery to generate attention to issues that are critically important—for those on the right or the left. Gitlin identifies Moore’s film as important, but not any damn good, and that’s the difference between what Gitlin actually wrote and what Doug H. calls a “laudatory review.”

Doug manages to avoid being accountable to his own early premise, that argumentation is based on more than abstract qualification. It also takes an appreciation of precision of meaning and an allowance for complexity, but he leaves neither for Gitlin.

[ Update: This conversation is continued in a newer post. ]