Written by Kristian Bjorkman
with Christina Zarcadoolas
I recently read an NPR article titled, “The Dangers of Hidden Jargon inCommunicating Science” by Tania Lombrozo. In the article, Lombrozo points out how the chance for miscommunication is high when people within the scientific community attempt to relay specific information to lay people. This happens when an everyday word that also exists within a given discipline has a specific definition that is not commonly used within the lay community. When scientists use their definition and the lay person interprets it as the colloquial definition, the word becomes what Lombrozo calls “hidden jargon.” For example, in everyday language the concept of causality is used to refer to a type of moral or fault judgement (so-and-so caused something), whereas the scientist scientist uses the term to describe causal relationships, as in an experiment.
We certainly may use jargon in casual, everyday communication, but we can’t get away with it for long. Friends interrupt us to ask what we mean or to challenge what we’re saying. But experts – now that’s another story. And so, when we’re receiving crucial information from our political leaders and law makers language that is filled with hidden jargon, is dangerous and must be called out. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement announcement to end the DACA program was peppered throughout with hidden jargon.
A close listen reveals that a majority of the Session’s speech was comprised of jargon-laden, context free bits of non-information. Aside from Session’s word choice creating a specific narrative laced with nebulous yet ubiquitous threats and containing a near jingoistic theme, we can see that there are words whose definitions can vary wildly based on the current political landscape.
Take for example the word “duty.” Sessions states that his duty, “is to ensure that the laws of the United States are enforced and that the constitutional order is upheld.” At first glance, this language seems appropriate coming from the Attorney General. Yet we have to ask ourselves where exactly does his duty to the law begin and end. Sessions wants to bring back the use of mandatory minimums – mandatory prison sentence for specific crimes – for minor, non-violent drug offenders. Mandatory minimums have proven to be both ineffective and racist, and yet Sessions believes he has a duty to resume this draconian practice.
Duty can be defined as a moral or legal obligation. One can have a duty to any number of things, such as one’s parents, children, neighborhood, friends, peers, religious congregation, God, oneself, etc. Quite often we see duty used as a tool to shame people who aren’t being enough of what we want them to be. In the case of Session’s speech, duty to one’s country is being used as the solution to the invasive presence of “aliens” within our borders. All we have to do to discharge our ”duty” is believe wholeheartedly in the ability of the administration to govern our lives properly, without question. Yet to the lay person, evoking the word duty can have a profound manipulative effect if we believe that the speaker is indeed using our definition of the word. Duty is far too complex a concept to ever be used without specific context. What defines how we carry out our duty? Does the manner in which we fulfill our duty change based on what our obligation is, or to whom or what we owe said obligation? These are the types of questions we need to be concerned with when confronting words that cover such a wide array of meanings. Commentators have pointed out that Sessions could barely contain his delight at handing down this decision. They refer to his smirk and lilting accent. I say let’s look closer at the hidden jargon that served as the scaffolding for the natavist narratives he was pushing down the throats of the American people.