Thursday, September 01, 2016

To Talk to the Nerds, You Must Become the Nerds.

When thinking about national security decision making, it is useful to think about nerds and nerdspeak. For our purposes here, let us define nerds as qualified national security experts and nerdspeak as the rhetoric and jargon such experts use to discuss their craft.

A prominent concept in  the study of national security decision making involves splitting decisions into two categories: root decisions and branch decisions. Scholar Charles E. Lindblom wrote an article in 1959 on branch decisions in which he explained the difference between the two types. Root decisions are based on principles and morals. They involve grand strategic goals and big picture ideas. Branch decisions are more technical actions, including logistical preparations, tactical directions, and smaller-scale plans of action. Discussing branch decisions often requires taking root decisions for granted, and any attempt to bring root discussions into branch decision can often be met with apathy, ridicule, or contempt.

The acts of discussing options and forming a decision intrinsically involve the intricacies of language and rhetoric. In a field like foreign policy or national security, which involve high level theory and a degree of technical knowledge, jargon and complicated rhetoric are hard to avoid among nerds. This brings us to George Orwell and Carol Cohn, two highly impressive nerds in their own right.

In his groundbreaking essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell discusses the concept that thought and language influence and limit one another, and that this can be used for nefarious purposes. Orwell further explored this idea in 1984, where the fictional government in the novel is actually restructuring English so that criticism of the state would be grammatically unintelligible. This new English, designed from the ground up to exclude certain tracks of thought, was called Newspeak. This may be a bit abstract, but the general concept articulated by Orwell has been documented in national security spheres.

Building a similar argument to Orwell's, academic Carol Cohn wrote a fascinating essay suggesting that the core concept of Orwell's Newspeak and the particular brand of nerdspeak spoken by nuclear strategists might be more closely linked than we'd be comfortable with. Cohn undertook a sort of anthropological field study of nuclear-focused defense intellectuals. She infiltrated the nerds and studied their nerdy ways. Cohn first learned to speak nuclear nerdspeak, a substantial process involving an understanding of highly gendered and technical jargon, as well as countless acronyms. This nerdspeak focused exclusively on branch decisions. When Cohn attempted to discuss the morality of nuclear warfare with her new nerd friends, she discovered that there wasn't a structure of nuke nerdspeak that would a) allow her to adequately articulate moral concerns and b) be taken seriously by the nuke nerds. The nerds had built a language atmosphere that excluded root decisions by its very nature.

For future national security nerds, it's important to strike a balance between mastering nerdspeak and remaining open to dissent. This requires awareness of the need for a nerdspeak that includes a structure for root discussions. Without such considerations, we risk creating (or just furthering) a culture that automatically excludes a portion of the debate. The last thing we want for national security is for the nerds to lock themselves in their metaphorical mom's basement and stop talking to the outside world. We need our nerds to be willing to look at the whole board.

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