Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A few thoughts about semantics, feminism and how the Left communicates it's ideas

I've been thinking a lot about semantics recently. Specifically, I've been thinking about the way in which the language lefty types such as myself use affects the way our ideas are percieved by others.
Let's see if I can explain this in a way that makes sense to anyone else. I consider myself to be pretty far to the Left. I also have a tendency to be rather an academic sort of person, to read very serious books full of complicated jargon that a person has to already be familiar with in order to understand what the authors are trying to say. In college I used to read linguistic theory for fun (clearly I was quite mad). I also have a tendency to deconstruct situations and political issues using what a friend of mine affectionately refers to as 'Marxist analysis". I am comfortable in the company of academics and intellectuals, and I enjoy theory for the sake of theory.
However, I'm also painfully aware that feminism has an image problem, and I think that part of the problem is our tendency to use obscure academic jargon that no-one outside our own little circle understands. By this I mean the habit of dropping words like patriarchy and heterocentric into casual conversation. I think that we often forget that when we use this kind of language, the vast majority of the population has no idea what the hell we're talking about. Furthermore, I think that some of the words we use are deeply alienating to people who are not already committed to the same philosophy we are.
This language problem isn't limited to feminism. The same issue shows up in all the social sciences and in most Leftist movements. Have you ever tried talking about socialism with someone who has no idea what "proletariat" means? Ever get the feeling that when you do talk about these things a lot of people are looking at you with thinly veiled resentment? If so then you, my friend, may be suffering from Lefty Intellectual Syndrome. I know it well, because I am Exhibit A.
Recently I've been running a little experiment in which, when participating in conversations in the blogosphere, I make a conscious attempt not to use lefty intellectual verbiage. Pretentious sociological terms such as "symbolic interactionism" (always my favourite example of academic babble) have been banished from my vocabulary. I am also making an effort not to use loaded terms that I know are often misinterpreted, "patriarchy" and "male privilege" among them.
The results so far are quite interesting. There's one blog that I regularly comment on which is maintained by a male women's studies professor. This particular blog has for some reason attracted a number of MRA commenters. Since launching project "drop the academic jargon", I've found that many of these same MRAs have become strangely civil towards me. One of them even made the comment that I had "earned his respect". I've been trying to parse out how much of this is based on what I've actually been saying and how much is based on the way in which I'm saying it. If anyone wants to chime in with an opinion I'd be happy to direct you to the blog in question.
This has got me thinking about how the Left "sells" our ideology in a more general sense. I think that part of the issue we often encounter is our own belief that we shouldn't have to sell our ideas at all. We assume that our natural moral and philosophical superiority is so self-evident that everyone else should just grasp the rightness of our position immediately and rush to join us. The problem it, that doesn't work. The Right is kicking our collective asses in large part because of their mastery of the ability to manipulate via the use of semantics. I suspect that if we keep playing fair and refusing to play the game of semantics we're going to keep getting our asses handed to us. Maybe it's worth exploring the possibility of actually trying to tweak the language we use in such a way as to get our points across better. Maybe we need to find and deploy a leftist Frank Luntz. On the other hand, in doing so we might lose our souls and forget what we really stand for. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Funny thing: I find that, while what I'm saying is quite palatable to most feminists, making a conscious effort to reassure folks that I understand the terms "patriarchy" and "male privilege" tends to get me listened to. But of course it's no secret that getting listened to by a subculture is in part dependent on proving that one speaks the language.

You've expressed two very different ideas here about jargon: (1) that it's over most folks' heads; and (2) that it marks the user. They're very different.

(1) is a broad political problem. It is possible to talk class issues to simple folks, of course. Populism has done that for a long time. Regarding distributional issues, in the U.S. I think we don't do this effectively on the left not because we can't, but because of a developed aversion to talking about class -- you live here, too, so it's a story I expect you know.

Outside of distributional issues, it may really be that we don't know how to put socially progressive ideas in ways that make common sense to folks without specialized education -- at least in part. There's also real resistance to the ideas, of course.

Much as I grit my teeth when I say this, the religious left can help out here if they get in the game and run with the ball. One thing preaching has always done is communicate ideas to people where they are.

(2) In my life, I've found the second part to be the bigger issue. The language we use marks where we stand -- it imports the discipline and ideology behind the term. When I say, "patriarchy" and "misogyny," everybody assumes I'm a feminist, and they take a position on whatever else I say based on their reaction to feminism (which may of course be just their biased, straw-man view).

This is the area where the gains can be immediate. Talking ideas without jargon when speaking to smart, educated people who would understand the terms is really a kind of stealth mode.

Last, I think the left has taken the approach that it is unseemly to market ideas -- in part, frankly, due to elitist snobbery, which I'm not immune to, and in part due to the foolish conceit that good ideas sell themselves. If there is one thing to take from the framing debate, it is that a lot more goes into the acceptance of ideas than simply the rational weighing of the merits that the "marketplace of ideas" concept accepts.


FoolishOwl said...

It's a general principle of rhetoric that you choose your language and diction to suit your audience. You talk so people understand you. Post-secondary education is all about talking about ideas you don't really understand, but doing so with an air of authority. It's about *deliberately* being obtuse.

Jargon can be useful -- you've got shorthand for complex ideas when you can assume your audience already knows what they mean. That's often not the case.

I've seen people make the mistake of going so far to avoid jargon that they dumb down their language and sound condescending. People aren't stupid. You can define a word here and there, and keep going.

Yesterday, for about the 10,000th time, I had someone tell me that she was a socialist, but she was afraid to say that, because she was afraid it would frighten people. I can't remember anyone ever rejecting an argument of mine when they found out I was a socialist, or arguing for socialism. They may not agree, but they can recognize a clearly expressed idea from a reasonable person.

Call things by their proper name, including your own beliefs.

Anonymous said...

Brian, it has been my experience that plenty of people stop listening when they attach a term they don't like to folks' ideas. I do it, and people do it to me.

Maybe you're used to dealing with a population more congenial to your politics.


FoolishOwl said...

Well, I've had conversations about socialism with self-described fundamentalist Christians who live in conservative small towns, without any extraordinary difficulty. Sure, they'd be dubious about my arguments, but they'd not reject them or me out of hand.

More commonly, I'll get into conversations about socialism at various jobs I've had, at picket lines, on buses, and other places where I find that people are actually rather interested to hear that someone, somewhere, actually believes in something other than the dead end of conventional politics and is acting on that basis.

I only run into problems with those dangerous words with two sorts of people:

1. Hardcore committed rightwingnuts, who aren't worth talking to anyway;

2. Middle class liberals, who keep coming up with the idea (as if it's a stroke of genius that no one else has ever thought of) to call a political idea by a different name, so as to fool those blue collar people into listening to ideas that they're already more interested in than middle class liberals ever are.

Winter said...

Hey Cassandra,

This is something I've been thinking about a lot recently myself. I too enjoy reading theory for theory's sake, especially dense academic queer and feminist theory. But I have decided not to inflict the language on other people unless they have the same tastes. I try and keep my hegemonies and heteronormativities and binary oppositions to myself! But I think every feminist should be able to cope with patriarchy and male privilege ( :

If I understand a concept surely I should be able to explain it without resorting to too much jargon.

I'm a member of a feminist group and we have some tensions going on at the moment because one member (not me)wants the group to read some very difficult jargon-ridden pieces. Those who do not come from a critical theory or philosophy background are quite rightly objecting, saying they'd feel utterly humiliated if they came to a meeting and couldn't understood the reading.

As Some people in the group have only just started reading feminist theory, the last thing I want to do is scare them off.

I also think there are also important questions about academia and elitism to consider here. But I can't open that one up right now.

Cassandra Says said...

Winter Woods, agreed. I make an effort not to inflict feminist linguistic theory or Marxist analysis on the uninitiated. Partly to be polite (using words that you know damn well will make other people feel dumb is rude), and also partly because I actually want to communicate.
On your reading group, there are plenty of feminist texts that aren't too theory-heavy. Naomi Wolff is a good place to start for beginners, as is Germaine Greer. I highly suggest avoiding Mary Daly if people are worried about comprehension issues - I once took Gyn/Ecology on a plane trip and it gave me a headache, and I LIKE theory. I would hesitate to inflict it on the uninitiated for fear that it would reinforce all their negative stereotypes about feminism.

Arwen said...

Over the past ten days, I've figured out that *I'm* missing something critical in feminist theory, although I can't truly shape what that looks like. And I *have* taken women studies courses and read a lot of theory. I wonder, sometimes, if there's not a lot that gets lost behind the jargon, anyway - is patriarchy to you the same as patriarchy to me with all the emotional weight and personal history that colours our individual understanding? As a 'third-wave' feminist, I have had a lot more privilege than those who've fought previous battles. I've had negative reactions come from second wave feminists to some of the things I believe or choose, and I think it's probably my own different experience of what it is to be a woman-in-society that colours my sense of what battles need to be done.

Cassandra Says said...

Hey Arwen. Me too, to be honest. I have issues with the whole "sex-positive" thing, and I REALLY have issues with the lesbian separatist thing. I've been reading about Mary Daly and the more I read the more uncomfortable with her theories I become. I'm starting to feel like I'm reading an MRA argument with the genders reversed. It makes me uncomfortable to find myself on the same side of the ideological fence as her. I used to think that the 2nd Wave/3rd Wave distinction was a bunch or crap, but now I'm beginning to feel different.

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