Wordfare: the new evil?
What exactly is wordfare in (international) legal scholarship, and should it worry us?
Last week, a call for papers landed in my inbox, which included ‘wordfare in legal scholarship’ as one of the suggested topics. I was immediately intrigued, so my reflex was to google ‘wordfare’, of course. Results included a Scrabble-like game, a site dedicated to romantic novels, and the album Biological Wordfare by ‘Foamy the Squirrel’ (parental advisory: explicit content). Not quite as helpful as I would have wished.
After digging a little bit deeper, though, I found a recent article published (coincidentally) in the Leiden Journal of International Law, entitled ‘Wording in International Law’ by Jean d’Aspremont. The article – discussed further in an online symposium here, here and here – describes wordfare as ‘a struggle for and through words’ in ‘a competition for interpretative authority and persuasiveness’.
The article touches upon several important questions, providing food for thought on issues such as the use of certain terminology – often borrowed from other disciplines – to obfuscate meaning and to intimidate readers unfamiliar with them. These are undoubtedly serious matters.
However, the article discusses features such as self-serving ‘textual pompousness’, scholars’ attempts to make themselves sound smart or to coin catchy new terms in almost the same vein. But while these tendencies can admittedly be frustrating, they are largely harmless (although they may provide interesting research material for discourse analysis), and merely the result of both human nature and the fact that law is more reliant on words than many other disciplines.
Whether in an article, research proposal, or lecture, we all try to build a narrative. Our goal is to convince our fellow academics, practitioners, funding committees, as well as students – if not of a particular viewpoint, then at least the importance of our discipline. The impulse to present ourselves and our argument in the best possible light is only natural, and in this ‘competition for persuasiveness’, words are virtually the only tools we have. In a field where there are no test tubes, petri dishes or lab experiments, and where quantitative research is still very much in its infancy (and has its limits in any case), we have no choice but to rely on words to convince others of what we think to be the superior argument. Granted, everyone has a different style and some may be more prone to such ‘pompousness’ than others. But that, in itself, is no cause for alarm.
Indeed, in a twist of irony, coining the term ‘wordfare’ could also be seen as wordfare – a fact readily acknowledged in the article itself. Published online at the end of July, the term is already gaining some traction, as evidenced by the recent call for papers; but whether it will survive in the long run remains to be seen. Not to be too presumptuous, but who knows: the next time anyone googles wordfare, maybe this post will pop up among the search results, too…