Sometimes I think that, because I’m a lawyer, people go out of their way to sound smart. And unfortunately, sometimes, in the process of forming elegant prose, their words are sucked of all actual meaning.
Similarly, I developed some bad speaking and writing habits over the course of my academic career. But I think people mistake those bad habits as airs that I’m actively putting on to sound smart, when actually my goal is always to make myself as easily understood as possible. That tension creates a kind of odd effect sometimes, to the point that one of my former bosses used to rib me about how I would do things like call opposing counsel’s argument “bananas” or draw a little chart with stick people to explain a complicated legal concept. And I do that because I think “bananas” often conveys more meaning than “baseless” or “untenable”, and I think that even a poor pictograph is often clearer and more memorable than even the best articulation of complicated concepts. So my professional pitch became: are you looking for a lawyer who’ll explain law to you with cartoons and phrases like “buttload of liability” or “bonkers ambiguous”? Then I’m your girl.
My goal is to convey that I know what I’m talking about in the substance of what I say, and to not sacrifice the effective communication of that substance at the altar of “sounding smart”. And what I’ve said to 101 clients over the course of my career so far is: “If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, it’s not because you’re failing to understand it, it’s because I’m failing to explain it”. Because I believe that allowing a person to think that they’re just too dumb to understand what you’re talking about is a reprehensible crutch for professionals who don’t grasp the subject matter well enough to be able to rephrase it. Like the chef who wrote the text in the featured image. On that evidence alone, I can be pretty sure that the guy is an asshole, and idiot, and / or a fraud… or a satirist.
Unfortunately, I think that correspondingly a lot of people have permitted themselves to take the intellectual shortcut of deferring to people who sound smart without paying attention to the substance of what they’re saying. Frankly, I think that’s why we’ve gotten into the regrettable position where anyone gives a shit about what Conrad Black has to say; we’ve allowed someone to become a thought leader despite that his only discernible talent is having complete recall of a thesaurus he read once.
We don’t pay enough attention to people who don’t have a formal education, or people with accents, and we pay all too much attention to people who use jargon to cover for their lack of understanding and general ignorance. We dismiss the substance of what someone says based on a spelling or grammar error. We tell people that they can’t have an opinion on gun regulation because they thought the “AR” in “AR-15” stood for “Assault Rifle”.
We’ve simultaneously made the threshold for being smart too easy and too strict. Making wisdom and expertise secondary in importance to the more performative aspects of intelligence, like wearing glasses (looking at you, Rick Perry) and the use of multi-syllabic words, without asking the more central questions, like: does this even taste good?
Posted in: Progress