Theodore Dalrymple on the Plain-Speaking Deficit
In many professions in the modern world, success requires a type of trained ignorance, a learned unclarity, and an ability to speak in a type of pseudo-intellectual gibberish that takes years to master.
At least, that is the thesis of Theodore Dalrymple, retired physician and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. In an article published in Spring 2021 of City Journal, Dalrymple takes us on a deep dive into the “social-managerial gibberish” that has become the hallmark of the successful bureaucrat. His thesis is startlingly simple: we have built a world in which success is correlated with the ability to speak poorly and to think in muddled ways.
As an example, Dalrymple looks at the British police. Last autumn, the town of Okehampton, in Devon UK, raised concern about vandalism in their local park. While the town is normally peaceful, park staff felt intimidated by disorderly young people. The town council responded by calling for more policing in the park. A reporter with the Okehampton Times responded to the council’s decision by asking Sergeant Walker of the Okehampton police “How often are you able to patrol the park? Which times do you choose and why?” Here is Walker’s reply:
“At present we recognise that there is an increased interest in the use of the park and the behaviour of young people while they are there. As a result we have created a tasking plan which aims to prevent crime and reassure people using the Simmons Park throughout the day. We are specifically targeting times during the afternoon following increased reports during this period. This is a whole team effort for the West Devon policing team, all of the teams including my own neighbourhood team in Tavistock and Okehampton are briefed every day on the issues that are reported and we are all working together to address this challenge. You will see us in the park discussing the issue with park users and encouraging people to report their experiences, you will also see us talking to the young people. As part of our response to this challenge we are working closely with Okehampton College, the local Space youth service team, our own youth intervention officer and the youth offending team in an effort to provide lasting solutions that help young people recover from their poor decisions and prosper as adults.”
The journalist then asked Sergeant Walker whether the police felt short-staffed following the council’s call for more policing. Here is his answer:
“The staffing of our beautiful county is carefully considered by Devon and Cornwall Police and there are many factors that influence the decisions that are made. At present West Devon is proportionately staffed for the demand on our service and I am pleased to say that we have a very positive and proactive team but I am aware that numbers of police is a very emotive subject. I am really encouraged by the teams’ approach to all of the challenges we face as an organisation. It is important that we remember and focus on the pressures faced in specific areas of the community but as a policing team we also need to take a broader view of the difficulties faced across a broad range of issues. We work really hard to do this and when specific challenges are identified we take action and seek support from other teams to help. At the moment the Okehampton neighbourhood team are focusing on the park and the anti-social behaviour because the public report this to be a significant challenge.”
This might be funny if it were not a microcosm of a larger problem. To use a lot of words to say nothing, to attain a deliberate muddiness of mind, to speak in a way that every sentence dies the death of a thousand qualifications – this has become the hallmark of most professional cultures in the modern world. Dalrymple comments:
"Sergeant Walker’s muddiness of mind and inability to speak in a direct manner did not arise from any natural incapacity but is highly trained and even programmed—for no one, even the most inarticulate, would speak spontaneously in the way that he spoke. On the contrary, it takes a certain skill and much practice to produce an effortless flow of this socio-managerial gibberish, which constantly approaches, but never quite reaches, meaning. If you don’t believe me, try to speak it for yourself.
Far from impeding his career, Walker’s trained inability to speak in plain language and to answer straight questions with straight answers is a precondition of such advancement. The imposition, adoption, and mastery of this type of language is the means by which ambitious mediocrities gain control over bureaucratic organizations. It drives people of higher caliber, who might otherwise pose a challenge to them, elsewhere.
Dalrymple’s larger concern is that “social-managerial gibberish” keeps entire disciplines insulated from critical thinking and public accountability and at worst, its rhetoric disguises corruption and incompetence. Amazingly, in many professions this type of incoherence is even perceived as a mark of professionalism, since it has become a proxy for the skills required by a successful bureaucrat or administrator.
The type of rhetorical smokescreen identified by Dalrymple has even become a hallmark of much of modern science, where “experts” short-circuit critical thinking to promote agenda-driven ideologies. Terrell Clemmons discussed this in Salvo #36 in her article, “Mind Control,” drawing on Marc Fitch’s book Shmexperts: How Ideology and Power Politics Are Disguised as Science.
More recently, we have seen this type of ignorance-disguised-as-expertise in the response to the COVID crisis, which City Journal covered in an explosive Summer 2021 feature article. In this article, John Tierney showed that journalists, scientists, and politicians conspired to suppress genuine science and true expertise, resulting in a pseudo-scientific anti-intellectualism that ultimately made the COVID crisis more severe than it needed to be.
As experts fall victim to the current zeitgeist, retreating into the type of ideology-driven incoherence that is now the hallmark of the modern professional, it wreaks collateral damage on society by creating space for the type of wholesale rejection of expertise that Thomas M. Nichols identified back in 2017.
Back to Dalrymple. His sobering conclusion is that the root of the problem lies in education, particularly in the way the humanities (and we should add, the social sciences as well) are taught. While many disciplines are characterized by clarity and coherence, the humanities and social sciences diverge by becoming increasingly characterized by gibberish.
“The degeneration of the public administration puzzles me because in all walks of life, from plumbers to electricians, locksmiths, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, surgeons, cardiologists, research scientists, and so forth, I meet capable, intelligent, honest, and talented people. The explanation of this strange divergence, I suspect, is ultimately in the way that the humanities, or inhumanities, are now taught in higher education.”
Read Dalrymple’s entire articleRobin Phillips
has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023). He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/how-pseudo-intellectual-gibberish-became-the-new-language-of-expertise