Marianne Novak
Marianne Novak
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It’s about language, stupid!

When scholars use jargon, the public cannot understand their insights, as was the case in the recent debate over rehabilitating Steven M. Cohen
Steven M. Cohen speaks at the Stanford University humanities center in 2016. (YouTube screenshot)
Steven M. Cohen speaks at the Stanford University humanities center in 2016. (YouTube screenshot)

During President Clinton’s 1992 campaign against the incumbent George H.W. Bush, his senior campaign consultant, James Carville (full disclosure: I am a big fan of Mr. Carville) implored campaign workers to focus on three simple direct messages that voters could understand. The slogans included, “Change vs. More of the Same,” “Don’t forget healthcare,” and the infamous, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Carville’s focus on important issues but using real language, struck a nerve in voters and Clinton was elected president.

In a recent interview with Mr. Carville, Sean Illing, in the online news and opinion platform Vox, discussed the messaging problem that the Democrats seem to be having now. Mr. Carville is concerned that the Democrats will squander this recent win partly because “…they’ve got a ‘messaging problem.” That particular problem stems from what Mr. Carville calls “faculty lounge” politics, where the messaging seems to embody the language and jargon that only academicians and insiders can understand. Carville notes:

You ever get the sense that people in faculty lounges in fancy colleges use a different language than ordinary people? They come up with a word like “LatinX” that no one else uses. Or they use a phrase like “communities of color.” I don’t know anyone who speaks like that. I don’t know anyone who lives in a “community of color.” I know lots of white and Black and brown people and they all live….in neighborhoods.

In the interview, Mr. Carville worries that if the Democratic Party really wants to help all Americans and achieve equality all around, it will not be able to do so using messaging that absolutely no one can understand. While ideas and philosophy are important to crafting and implementing policy, it is impossible to do so when the ideas are inscrutable.

The problem of jargon and insider academic language is of course not limited to the US political sphere. It rears its ugly head in any arena where there are insiders and outsiders whether that be in medicine, law, business and most especially in academia. This has become a particular stumbling block for the Jewish community, where the university and think tanks both strive to take over the discourse about the future of the Jewish community. A lot of very good thinking is being thought, but by its nature and design, there is very little hope to implement these ideas to improve the Jewish community because no one — even those who are very educated — can make heads or tails of them. If change is really going to happen, it has to be understood by all the stakeholders, especially those outside the ivory tower.

A current example of this particular conundrum is the controversy surrounding the possible re-entry of the sociologist Professor Steven Cohen back into the conversation with Jewish academics to reintroduce his groundbreaking demographic work on Jewish continuity. Professor Cohen’s departure from Hebrew Union College in 2018 stemmed from allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and bullying of junior female colleagues. Cohen has not denied these allegations. To the contrary: he has expressed intent to apologize to his accusers, though that has yet to happen. When it came to light recently that prominent Jewish academics were having informal discussions with Cohen, the virtual universe exploded, imploring the Association for Jewish Studies to keep Cohen out of the inner circle. The strongest push back came from the Association of Jewish Studies Women’s Caucus, which released a statement stating:

The attempt to re-center and rehabilitate a disgraced and ostracized scholar has real consequences. The Women’s Caucus views these efforts as unacceptable and deeply troubling, because they jeopardize the position of junior and contingent scholars as well as re-victimizing women targeted by Cohen.” (Statement from the AJS Women’s Caucus, March 23, 2021)

(See also, Steven M. Cohen, shunned by the academy after harassment allegations, makes a stealthy comeback — and provokes uproar.)

The reaction to Cohen’s possible reacceptance stemmed not only from the practical implications of having a sexual predator back in the field, but also precipitated a new look at the initial criticisms of his body of work and the inherent sexism and bias that it contained. Cohen’s work, and the inherent problems in it, were not an isolated academic exercise. Indeed, the findings of Cohen’s demographic work on Jewish continuity influenced and crafted policy for the Jewish Federations of North America, the largest umbrella group of Jewish social service agencies that impact the majority of Jews the US and Canada.

In 2018, in light of Cohen’s sexual misconduct charges, Professors Kate Rosenblatt, Lila Corwin Berman, and Ronit Stahl published an article in the Forward (“How Jewish Academia created a #MeToo disaster,”) highlighting the inherent bias and resulting policy that it was “time to acknowledge that a communal obsession with sex and statistics has created pernicious and damaging norms.” But while this response was published in a general Jewish publication, its focus did not go beyond the ivory tower or the rarified C-suite of Jewish organizations. Partly, I would argue, because the folks on the ground — to whom these misguided policies affect the most — weren’t really included in the conversation. For an outsider, it just looked like #MeToo in academia, filled with insider jargon and references.

A more recent response to the real concern about Cohen re-joining the conversation came from Professors Gilah Kletenik and Rafael Rachel Neis’s article, “What’s the Matter with Jewish Studies? Sexism, Harassment and Neoliberalism for Starters”

The article highlights all the things wrong with including Cohen back into the conversation and the inherent problem of including his work altogether. While impassioned and detailed, the language is frankly too obtuse for the average Jew who would be and is the most affected by these philosophies and findings and the overarching influence on policy. The paragraphs are overly academic and jargon-laden. Some examples: “Neoliberalism is complicit in what we see as the patriarchy, heteronormativity, and racism of the Jewish continuity discourse.” “Our concern surfaces when ‘external’ agendas, especially of the neoliberal variety, subsidize research by reproducing not only its biases but also a commodity approach to knowledge that measures worth and relevance based on capitalist categories.” And the final paragraph:

We invite our colleagues across the field of Jewish Studies (and beyond) to
interrogate the ideologies and priorities that both condition and constrain our
collective research. This is an opportunity not only to dismantle the oppressiveness of racist and cis-heteronormative thinking and practices. It’s also our moment to overcome the constraints of neoliberal rubrics and the fetish of the contemporary, and to reimagine a field invigorated by casting wide intellectual alliances, untamed by disciplinary boundaries, and liberated from its fear of difference.

If you are shaking your head, you are not alone. I am a cum laude graduate of Barnard College. I have a law degree from Washington University in St. Louis and semikha (ordination) from Yeshivat Maharat — I am admittedly overeducated — and I had a hard time understanding this. While arguably Kletenik and Neis’s audience was the academic and think tank world, it seems (and only after careful rereading) that they acknowledge the wider effects of reintroducing Steven Cohen’s work and are extremely concerned about that danger.

There is truly no way that these insights and recommendations will make it into real-world policy decisions, however, because of, as Mr. Carville characterized it, their “Faculty Lounge” language. It made me wonder for whom these academics were writing and why they wrote it? Did they publish it to go beyond the ivory tower? Did they write it for virtue-signaling? Were they hoping it would actually affect change? I am sure they had the best intentions, but it will go nowhere because no one can understand it.

Thankfully, not all academics write without practical considerations in mind, (see Mijal Bitton’s most excellent scholarly and practical analysis of this issue. But as general media and Jewish media increasingly look to academia and think tanks to assess, “What does the Jewish community or Judaism think about x?” it will be even more important for those organizations to speak in a language that people can understand.

Note that while I strongly advocate using plain language, that should not imply that we need to “dumb down” the discourse. Making difficult ideas and concepts easy to understand doesn’t demean those ideas, but instead lifts them up and shows that the thinking behind them is sound. If you can use simple language without jargon or insider references to express your idea, then your idea is sound. If we truly want to rid our Jewish communities of bias and sexism and truly want them to be inclusive, we need to be vigilant and careful in the language that we use in thinking about this issue and the policies we hope to create.

As James Carville noted about discussions about race in this country:

We have to talk about race. We should talk about racial injustice.
What I’m saying is, we need to do it without using jargon-y language
that’s unrecognizable to most people — including most Black people, by the way — because it signals that you’re trying to talk around them.
This “too cool for school” sh*t’ doesn’t work, and we have to stop it.

We have to talk about Jewish continuity and future and at the same time recognize the inherent biases in that conversation too without being “too cool for school.” We need to be aware of the very bad actors and do the hard work necessary to separate, when appropriate and necessary, the scholarship from the personality. And while getting the thought process right is crucial, it cannot stop there. All lofty thinking is truly meaningless if it doesn’t have real-world applications. And there is a real need, especially as we begin to emerge from a post-pandemic reality, to rethink what an inclusive Jewish community can and will look like and create thoughtful and practical policies to respond to our new normal. But none of that work can be done if it can’t be understood by the very people the policies are purported to help. It really is the language, stupid!

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group.
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