Notes On Unnecessary Complexity On Communication; Or, What The Fuck Are You Saying?
By Scott Puckett (Reprinted from Clamor Magazine)
"We want to talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand."
Malcolm X (Breitman 4)
"While jargon is a common shorthand for communicating to like-minded people, it can be stultifying and stupefying for the uninitiated."
Steven Heller (Heller and Ballance ix)
For some unknown reason, most leftist communications (whether written or spoken) are so complicated that they are, at best, virtually unintelligible. Jargon-laden, awkward phrasing - by any measure, leftist communications are just bad. This academic language hasn't made it easy for people to understand, much less support, liberal causes. After all, as numerous conservative politicians have shown us, it's easy for people to support a Contract With America or a War On Terrorism, even if they may not fully understand what those words suggest, but it's more difficult to get people to organize in opposition to the concept of globalization (describe it as potential lost jobs for the American worker and watch how long it takes dockworkers get behind the cause). And this illustrates the primary failure of the Left - the absolute failure of its communications and messages to reach a wider audience.
In order to help make the Left relevant again, we must develop a new, common sense approach to communications. Call it a marketing or branding strategy if you like ("New and improved Left! Now with 20% more intelligibility!"). Since mainstream leftist ideology typically focuses on equal rights and protection under the law, a living wage, sustainable growth and the like, it shouldn't be that difficult to get blue-collar workers behind these causes - they are the people who are most affected by these issues and who are most likely to fight for them. However, it seems that the working class views leftist ideology with suspicion, and with good reason - for the most part, leftism never came down from the Ivory Tower to work second shift on the factory line. Leftism stayed in the white-collar world where its academic theories rubbed tweed-covered elbows with management.
Defining a Communicative Event; or, What Happens When You Open Your Mouth
Academics who write about non-scientific subjects use a lot of words - they might as well get paid by the ton. Since sociologists and sociolinguists have studied what occurs in communication most extensively, much of the writing on the subject is difficult to wade through.
A communicative event (1) is a fancy way to describe having a conversation or reading a book. There's a topic of conversation and usually someone (a speaker or an author) voices an opinion. However, in order for communication to occur, everyone who is involved must understand what's going on - for example, a reader must be literate and speak the language that the author used. To be effective, communication must focus on the listener or reader. The speaker or author must take political leanings, educational background, gender, race and other factors into account to anticipate reactions and tailor the message to have the most effect.
How to Communicate: A Brief Lesson
The above factors will determine the appropriate register (2) - that is, the language you use. After all, it's just common sense that, to take two examples, college professors and trash collectors talk differently. In any case, speaking as plainly as possible ensures that everyone can understand you. While you may use academic language while talking to a fellow academic, using such language with someone who didn't graduate from high school (but still feels just as cheated by the system as you do) will result in nothing but feelings of inferiority, bitterness and resentment.
Unfortunately, most leftists seem to ignore this common sense approach to communication and instead load essays with words like praxis, hegemony and paradigm. It seems that leftists assume that everyone talks like they do. That's an optimistic view. The pessimist might argue that leftists use this language intentionally to leave less educated people out of the dialogue entirely (3).
The solution is simple - talk in a language that everyone can easily understand so that you don't harm leftist causes by confusing people who have a vested interest in those issues but may lack the academic/collegiate background necessary to wade through the theory. Or, if you can't manage to do that, don't talk at all. At least you won't make anyone feel stupid or uneducated if you keep quiet.
We Regret To Inform You That No One Gives A Shit About Your Privilege
Most leftist writing absolutely fails to communicate to a wider audience on every level. In some cases, it doesn't even communicate to the Left (especially if it doesn't use alternate spellings, frequent references to prejudices and constant acknowledgments of other people's pain). To be as blunt as I possibly can, it seems like a godawful racket of whining. It sounds like an orchestra of two-year-olds, all of whom are throwing temper tantrums simultaneously. It's the sound of people playing oppression bingo. It is the sound of people failing to do much at all except talk.
There are randomized text generators that essentially throw text together based on certain rules. The best of these (4) generates text which is virtually indistinguishable from most academic leftism. Here are a few examples - one from an actual article submitted to a magazine, the rest randomly generated. Try to tell them apart:
- "Baudrillard's critique of subtextual discourse implies that sexuality serves to marginalize the underprivileged, given that culture is interchangeable with reality. It could be said that the subject is interpolated into a textual Marxism that includes truth as a totality."
- "Indeed, the heterogeneity of interests at stake at such protests (i.e., neo-liberalism, or a freedom that is limited exclusively to one of the market) presents itself as a necessary precondition for the construction of a democratic movement, yet there is nothing in and of such a heterogeneity which guarantees a democratic politics."
- "If one examines capitalist narrative, one is faced with a choice: either accept constructivist postcultural theory or conclude that discourse comes from the collective unconscious. The subject is interpolated into a socialist realism that includes consciousness as a paradox. Thus, capitalist narrative suggests that culture is used to marginalize minorities."
Given up yet? The second excerpt was written by a person. The rest are computer generated. As a test, I asked people to pick which one was real. No one in my control group got the answer right. The problem is that a computer script can generate language that mimics leftist writing so effectively that people can't tell the difference between the script's output and actual writing. By following simple rules, a computer can create these grammatically and, in many cases, semantically correct essays on the fly. The logic may seem circular and the syntax may seem so tortured that shooting it in the head would be a mercy, but these passages aren't that different from the average leftist paper on ... well, whatever. And Paul Fussell would identify this as bad language (5).
Many people use big words to make themselves or their ideas sound important (or to obscure the meaning and make it sound pleasant or desirable). It may also be the case that people use big words to sound more important and make their opinions seem more significant (6). But that could then mean that the Left is essentially a clique and people are scrambling for status in a movement that is theoretically devoid of status or class ...
Let's not worry about that now though. The key point here is that leftist communications tend to feature big words when more plain-spoken language is available (7). This failure to communicate yields confusion and - just to make sure this is firmly in mind - continues to exclude people who, due to social and economic circumstances, would likely be most receptive to these messages.
But really - isn't it more important to seem intelligent to your peers than it is to communicate across arbitrary social, economic, academic and political boundaries? Isn't it more appealing to use convoluted grammar, jargon and toss around theory that you haven't learned how to put into practice yet?
Theory - Practice = Bullshit
This is where it gets sticky - putting these ideas into practice. For your convenience, here's a summary, broken down into bullet points:
- KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid. Sure, maybe it's a slightly insulting acronym, but no more so than some of the poorly written progressive articles and books that I've read. Drop the jargon. Drop the academics. Talk and write in a language that everyone can understand. If you don't, you make readers turn the page. And that's the best case scenario.
- Think about who you're talking to. Shift registers when appropriate.
- If you can't manage to keep it simple and consider your audience, keep quiet. At least you won't do any inadvertent damage.
Above all else, keep this in mind - the language we use shapes how we think and act (8) - in short, how we deal with the world. Consider how people who may not have an academic background will respond to your words. Will you describe the world to them in terms that confuse them, thus affirming (or reaffirming) linguistic/social inferiority (which will also put you on the side of elitists who only want power for themselves) or will you describe the world in simple terms that everyone can understand, thus letting people know that they can and must play an active role in determining the outcomes of their lives? Your answer should be simple.
Breitman, George, ed. Malcolm X Speaks. 1966. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.
Chaika, Elaine. Language: The Social Mirror. 3rd ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle Publishers, 1994.
Chomsky, Noam. The Chomsky Reader. New York: Pantheon Books, 1987.
Cleary, Linda Miller, and Linn, Michael D., eds. Linguistics for Teachers. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.
Fromkin, Victoria, and Rodman, Robert. An Introduction to Language. 5th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.
Fussell, Paul. Bad or, the Dumbing of America. New York: Summit Books, 1991.
Heller, Steven. Introduction. Graphic Design History. New York: Allworth Press, 2001.
Hymes, D. "Toward Ethnographies of Communication: The Analysis of Communicative Events." Language and Social Context. Ed. Pier Paolo Giglioli. 1972. New York: Penguin, 1990.
Strunk, William Jr., and White, E.B. The Elements of Style. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1979.
- For more information, see D. Hymes' "Toward Ethnographies of Communication: The Analysis of Communicative Events." It is far more exhaustive in its explanation and analysis of these points.
- A register is a mode of communication that is appropriate to a situation and audience; you might not use slang with a professor or profanity with your parents while you might do so with friends. The language and way you speak in each situation is a register or functional variety. Shifting registers may also involve changing dialects, if a speaker happens to be bidialectal. (Chaika 82)
- "If it is plausible that ideology will in general serve as a mask for self-interest, then it is a natural presumption that intellectuals, in interpreting history or formulating policy, will tend to adopt an elitist position ... and emphasiz[e] rather the necessity for supervision by those who possess the knowledge and understanding that is required (so they claim) to manage society and control social change." (Chomsky 83)
- "There must be in the language, as there is not in, say, fuck, an impulse to deceive, to shade the unpleasant or promote the ordinary to the desirable or wonderful, to elevate the worthless by a hearty laying-on of the pretentious." (Fussell 101)
- As Fussell suggests, "the quest for individual social significance is unremitting, and if you've not earned it, you can affect it by the means chosen by most Americans, verbal pomposity." (Fussell 103)
- Fussell alternately calls this tendency syllable augmentation (103) and syllable multiplication (106).
- Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf's research effectively proved that, as Whorf wrote, "an accepted pattern of using words is often prior to certain lines of thinking and forms of behavior ... ." (Cleary 79)