I should probably love all words. After all, I am a wannabe wordsmith and a person in possession a degree that claims that I’m a master of the English language. Words are special snowflakes. Like colors for an artist, each has its place when used appropriately. Having said that, certain words grind my gears. The only thing more annoying than the words themselves is their annoying necessity at times. They describe things perfectly, but misuse has rendered them ineffectual and suspect. They annoy me. Occasionally I’ll complain about them. Today, I complain about the word “pretentious.”
There may be nothing more pretentious than using the word “pretentious.” Of all the words, none displays more pretentiousness than “pretentious” itself. It allows one to dismiss any creative or intellectual endeavor with no explanation. Declaring something pretentious implies that you’re too cool or too wise to scrutinize the actual details of the derided object or person. For example, if you dislike this essay because you are wont to dismiss things as pretentious and you feel attacked, you could avoid any introspection by calling me pretentious.
The accusation of pretense can be applied to an individual, a class of people, and action, or a creation. For example, I could call Fred pretentious, I could stereotype all avant-garde filmmakers as pretentious, I could tell Fred that he’s behaving pretentiously, or I could describe all avant-garde films as pretentious. In all cases, the insult critiques behavior.
A critique of behavior I do not mind. But a critique of behavior must be include the important “because.” Otherwise, it become nothing but an insult. Absent an explanation the word becomes a form of lazy anti-intellectualism. It indicates and unwillingness to engage.
Pretentiousness is often found in academia. It could be said that most academic activity, by definition, displays pretense because accolades motivate academic work more than genuine intellectual curiosity. Academia has created a system that cultivates pretense by prioritizing publication and conference presentations over honesty and quality teaching. While critics often accuse academics of pretentiousness, this criticism misses the mark when you realize that they are just behaving in the manner their profession rewards. Pretense is merely a symptom of a greater disease. Namely, we value the prestige of research and publication more than the ability to teach. We value citations over rigor. The appearance of success over the doldrums methodical yet unspectacular research.
Accusing one of being pretentious is a particularly effective way to insult an artist or academic. It suggests that the thing they do and care passionately about does not matter. Furthermore, it suggests that their passion is not genuine, that their motives are impure. Sometimes this accusation is true. However, using this annoying word does little to advance the substance of such an argument. It allows one to draw a conclusion without justifying it.