julia foulkes

“It’s Complicated.”

This phrase infuriates me. It’s a hallmark of academia today—its promises and its disdain. The level of complexity has expanded within the humanities by the entrenchment of theory and opened up levels of intersecting meanings. But the patronizing has expanded as well. Because this phrase usually signals the end of a conversation rather than an entreaty to more exploration.

My default response when someone says this phrase: Duh. Saying something “is complicated” is really not saying much if that is the default thinking of an entire industry. (If academics did not think something was complicated, we would not train five to ten years for a doctorate to learn how to figure stuff out.) So I take the phrase primarily to be a way to say, “I know more than you do. And since you don’t even seem to be aware of these complications, then I surely cannot explain them to you.” It’s default arrogance.

Obviously, I find this infuriating particularly because I am part of this industry, a well-certified member with all the signs, symbols, and performative gestures of degrees, fellowships, books, and accolades. The patronizing is meant to be demeaning and create hierarchy among us. But, even more, I find it lazy. Because it gives up the debate—there is no explanation as to whys or hows of the complicatedness. And most of all, it obviates responsibility for addressing complexity—understanding so as to make change. We all throw up our hands, nod humbly at the person who uttered the phrase, and stop talking.

There are certainly occasions when the phrase may have other utility. It may be a polite way to stop conversation because there is clear disagreement that may not be worth engaging. But I think it is more often a signal of our unwillingness to be uncomfortable, to do the hard work of thinking through complexity with others, and to admit our fallibility. We may not know just how complicated something is—but why not admit that and keep talking rather than pretend depth and evade accountability?