The importance of clarity (part two)
(A few months ago, I wrote a paper called “The Clarity Imperative”. The .pdf is available here. I’m presenting excerpts from it in a series of posts (the first post can be found here, and I’ll be doing one more after this), both because I think that the issues it discusses (the relationship between clarity and rhetorical effectiveness, the democratization of knowledge, the effective communication of science, etc.) are important and because I’m interested in starting a conversation about these issues. Please do comment if you’re so inclined. Thanks!
Two quick notes: 1) a few responses to the first post (made on various social networks, not in the comments section of the post itself) expressed annoyance with the academic style of my writing. I understand that some people don’t care for academic writing, and, in some cases, I share their distaste. However, keep in mind that these posts are excerpts from an academic paper and are thus written in a much more formal style than most of my blog posts. As such, if you don’t care for academic writing, you may want to skip these particular posts. 2) In the excerpt presented in this post, I focus primarily on Ian Barnard’s “The Ruse of Clarity“. Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall. If you’re interested in reading it and don’t have access to academic databases, send me an email and I’ll send you the .pdf)
The extent of the current threat to effective science communication is made explicit in Ian Barnard’s “The Ruse of Clarity”, in which he asserts that clarity is not axiomatic and thus should not be assumed to be virtuous, and that the binary of clear/unclear is reinforced by “ideological baggage” (435). In his opinion, clarity itself is an ideology because “assumptions about clarity’s obviousness, objectivity, and innocuousness in fact conceal the ideological work that is done in the name of clarity” (434). Barnard also claims that clarity “implicitly champions and abjures” (435) certain values, and that those who critique the obscurant nature of much of critical theory are secretly attacking “the politics of critical theory” (435).
One of Barnard’s targets are traditional writing handbooks that promote clear and concise writing. For example, Barnard asserts that Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose “has political motives and implications beyond the literal desire to enjoy ‘clear’ writing” (437). What these alleged political motives and implications are, though, Barnard does not tell us. He then claims that “calls for clarity in student writing intersect with complaints of obfuscation in scholarly writing in the humanities” (437) and that those who have accused theory of being “willfully obscurant” are either “anti-intellectuals”, “readers who found theory difficult and frustrating”, or individuals who “felt threatened by the ideologies of postmodernism and poststructuralism” (437). In addition, referring to students who are confused by theory, he argues that “[t]hey may use their experience of finding a text difficult to read as reason to dismiss or criticize the text, rather than to see this difficulty as exposing their own deficiencies” (443). Tellingly, Barnard provides no evidence whatsoever for these assertions. What Barnard fails to understand is that, when it comes to effective communication, the onus is on the communicator, and that, if a communicator fails to reach their audience, they cannot blame their failure on the attitudes or supposed “deficiencies” of their readers. To assert otherwise is both counterproductive and gallingly elitist.
Next, we come to Barnard’s most egregious error, found in this passage:
It is surely no coincidence that the culminating example of exclusionary and inefficient writing listed in Susan Peck MacDonald’s Professional Academic Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences is Fredric Jameson (193–95), a familiar target in attacks on difficult writing. Tellingly, MacDonald’s supposedly scientific analysis of Jameson’s prose never addresses the substance of Jameson’s ideas, focusing instead on syntactic length, nominalization, and nonconcrete verbs in Jameson’s work. By bracketing content, MacDonald not only avoids dealing with the implications of Jameson’s argument, but also suggests that style is completely independent of meaning—as if certain ideas aren’t expressed more effectively in specific styles, as if there is one generic and universal style that is always best. (438)
These assumptions are incorrect. Studying style independently of content does not mean that one does not care about or is unwilling to deal with the content of the work under consideration. Analyzing the style of a text in a scientific manner and determining whether or not it is “exclusionary and inefficient”, unclear, or rhetorically ineffective in its presentation, on the contrary, indicates a great respect for the content of, “the implications of”, and the meaning of the text under consideration. In other words, if the text’s content is substantive and meaningful, then it must be written in a clear, precise, and understandable style that gives it the vigorous and thorough treatment that it deserves, that utilizes a manner of presentation that is both efficient and non-exclusionary, and that promotes the dissemination of knowledge.
Barnard’s final claims are that clarity is an ideology and that those who insist on clarity think that clear and precise arguments are automatically rhetorically effective. This, however, is far from true. It also supports Charney’s assertion that “critics of science often conflate methods and ideologies in simplistic ways” (568). In contrast to what Barnard asserts, it is important to bracket style and content in order to determine the most effective way to transmit the content. Additionally, this bracketing is important because it helps readers to understand the difference between an argument that is clear but not substantive or meaningful and an argument that is clear, substantive, and meaningful.
Clarity is a tool that helps to increase an audience’s understanding of the content of an argument, but it is not nor should it be the sole determinant of the quality of an argument. Style and content must be analyzed separately in order to determine the best and most rhetorically effective way to present an argument. Barnard’s claim that clarity is an ideology, then, is baseless, as an insistence on clarity and an understanding of how it can increase the effectiveness of an argument cannot, by any intellectually honest person, be labeled as a doctrine or belief system. As Charney says, most rhetoricians are well aware that “authority does not devolve automatically on anyone who uses an objective, quantitative method” (580). Rather, an understanding of the importance of clarity is simply an indicator of an individual’s appreciation of careful and precise writing that successfully transmits and disseminates knowledge. Barnard refuses to acknowledge that criticism of willfully obscurant writing is just that: a critique of the confusing nature of the text, often including suggestions as to how it could be made clearer so that its contents will be successfully transmitted to an audience.
Barnard’s dismissal of clarity is dangerous. It threatens the effective communication of important information and persuasive arguments, scientific or otherwise. In addition, it exposes the hypocrisy of the claims regarding oppression and egalitarianism professed by Barnard and others. Nothing in Barnard’s essay helps to combat oppression or to promote egalitarianism. Barnard and others who share his ideological stance do not respect their audience enough to offer them a clear, thorough, and precise presentation of the information under consideration, even when this information could potentially empower their audience in a variety of ways. This attitude threatens both the democratization of knowledge and the effective communication of science.
Barnard, Ian. “The Ruse of Clarity.” College Composition and Communication 61.3 (2010): 434-451. Print.
Charney, Davida. “Empiricism Is Not a Four-Letter Word.” College Composition and Communication 47.4 (1996): 567-593. Print.