If you have not read Francis Wheen’s wonderful book ‘How mumbo-jumbo conquered the world’, you have missed out on a lot of fun. It is a hilarious account of how people love to add words and activities that seem fairly complicated or pretty simple but which have no real meaning.
Before we discuss what mumbo-jumbo means and how it has creeped into nearly all walks of life, something about Francis Wheen and his book is in order. Wheen is a British broadcaster and journalist who has worked for some of the top newspapers in Britain. He is also author of several books including a biography of Karl Marx and a ‘notional biography’ of ‘Das Kapital’ dealing with the creation and publication of the first volume of Marx’s most important work, as well as other incomplete volumes. Wheen is a keen observer of history and writes about it with passion.
‘How mumbo-jumbo conquered the world’ is subtitled as ‘a short history of modern delusions’. He contends that in the last quarter of the 20th century when the likes of Khamenei, Reagan, and Thatcher used mumbo-jumbo to conquer their countries, a period began in the world’s history when most things began to stop making sense. With changes in the Soviet Union and emerging crises in the socialist world, notions of history, progress, and reason vacated space for colonization by literary loons, management gurus, and spiritual cults. Irrational ideas presented by quackery brought about a New Age of confused mumbo-jumbo. He uses ‘voodoo’ for such quackery.
Wheen exposes the march of unreason that threatens to clog our minds. He is an intelligent sceptic who raises pertinent questions about new hocus-pocus disguised as ‘academic excellence’, ‘management marvels’, ‘mastery learning’, ‘post-whatever’, and ‘spiritual guidance’. To Wheen, it shows an absence of common sense in most people who welcome every new jargon as impressive and self-evident. Wheen’s mission is to debunk such jargon as mumbo-jumbo. He attacks both complicated pomposity and simplistic explanations. The book was published in 2004 and my English friend Alan Hamilton – who died last year at the age of 90 – presented it to me.
For the past 15 years I have read it multiple times with new enjoyment as more and more mumbo-jumbo from education to politics emerges across the world – and in Pakistan too. Wheen begins with Khomeini, Reagan and Thatcher, describing them as masters of mumbo-jumbo who had nothing concrete to offer but people liked their grandiloquent style and optimism. They cajoled their people into acquiescence by the promise of change that ultimately proved illusory. He enumerates the cost people paid for the political chicanery of these leaders. Why do people accept and welcome such mumbo-jumbo? Wheen’s answer is ‘self-incurred immaturity’.
Wheen suggests that we demand autonomy and clarity with intellectual and rational vigour from anyone who offers checklists and straitjackets to confine our thinking. For example, he says the word ‘enlightenment’ itself has been misappropriated by the purveyors of mumbo-jumbo who dish out hundreds of books every year on ‘enlightenment’ which tends to be more spiritual than intellectual. In its original meaning, ‘enlightenment’ referred to rational enquiry rather than purifying your soul with meditation. Enlightenment gives you confidence in rational argument, and anything that moves you away from it we may consider as mumbo-jumbo that promotes obscurantist bunkum.
In most cases, mumbo-jumbo uses elegant phraseology to promise complex or simple solutions. It works both ways: complicated and simplistic. Some mumbo-jumbo uses complex discourse to sound academic and authentic, whereas at the bottom it is shallow. Some others use oversimplified language for ideas that need profound thinking. In both, they target and satisfy their own audiences which regale in, at times ‘scientific’ approach and at others, in presumably down-to-earth simplicity. So, the mumbo-jumbo can work as a double-edged sword with its own sharp ends that appear to be cutting-edge but in fact blunt the minds.
Catchphrases turn into mantras which every other street-corner orator may use. In countries such as Pakistan, ideological and sectarian mumbo-jumbo is a favourite staple in all seasons. Most of this is intellectually unsound and self-defeating, but it sells. Even if such mumbo-jumbo is incredible, most people – from academics and the clergy to the laity – find it impressive and useful. Mumbo-jumbo has its own spell that prevents independent thinking be it in development and economics or in education and management. The mumbo-jumbo of the development sector presents ‘agents of change’, ‘benchmarks’, ‘capacity development’, ‘community empowerment’, ‘decentralized planning’, ‘enabling environment’, ‘logical frameworks’, ‘theory of change’, and many others.
Market economy presents a selective picture of society using its own mumbo-jumbo such as ‘bottom-lines’, ‘choices’, ‘consumer satisfaction’, ‘derivatives’, ‘economic determinism’, ‘futures’, ‘game theory’ and ‘trickle-down effect’. Education has developed its own mumbo-jumbo that talks about ‘academic achievement’, ‘behaviour-change communication’, ‘competency-based education’, ‘complementarity’, ‘curriculum delivery’, ‘classroom management’, ‘formative assessment’, ‘goal-oriented education’, and ‘higher-order learning’. Management has its own alchemical formulas that have a veneer of scientific method to make them universally popular. All the above may have some utility but in most cases they become voodoo; meaning as if by the magic of this you will get the desired results.
In most cases, the mumbo-jumbo by itself does nothing to induce genuine change. Academics to celebrities – who become influenced by such mumbo-jumbo – end up as incorrigible fantasists. In every field there appears to be some old ham who makes you believe in fantasies. Do this or that, and the future is yours. Draft a single national curriculum and you get a uniform education system. Add more religion in the syllabus, and you get admirable believers. Develop good benchmarks and you have top scorers. Conduct training in community empowerment and you harvest empowered people. The trick is to cut through this mumbo-jumbo.
Most documents and speeches using mumbo-jumbo are vainglorious monuments waiting for followers. When academies, departments, institutions, ministries, or organizations adopt such mumbo jumbo, the people working there and expected beneficiaries are blithely left to the tender mercies of ‘gurus’ who claim to be experienced and qualified. A good ‘guru’ is sharp in using jargon with unsuspecting followers, but a better ‘guru’ is able to develop a whole new set of jargon; and lo and behold, you are in with some brand-new mumbo-jumbo. But those who can challenge the jargon become a tiny and ever-shrinking group.
The rhetorical ammunition at the command of ‘gurus’ is formidable, and that ammunition is used to wage a war against ‘the enemy within’. If you are working in a department that has decided to embrace such mumbo-jumbo, and you decide to challenge, the gurus are likely to declare you ‘the enemy within’. The mumbo-jumbo itself becomes a kind of theology that you can’t question. Be it academic theology about categories and rankings or simple educational mumbo-jumbo about ‘pacing guides’, ‘outcomes’, ‘topic sentences’, and ‘topic paragraphs’, we should not consider them scriptural.
Ultimately, mumbo-jumbo is all about neologism in which you use a new word or expression, or simply give a new meaning to an existing one; and make people believe in it, no matter how irrational this exercise is. Then you lionize the gurus who use euphemisms such as ‘downsizing’, ‘right-sizing’, or ‘rationalizing’ the number of employees rather than saying you are depriving them of their employment.
As Wheen says: “legerdemain depends on its success on fooling all the audience all the time: any member of the crowd who points out that the entire operation is a con must be silenced at once…”