Monday, December 31, 2007

Back to Basics

Che invited me to his blog as a guest a while ago and I think I finally found the right topic to write about. Che and Trout seem to have the political side of things nailed down far more than I do so I won't go there; but I do think I can add something meaningful.

Che pondered how we can move forward with a new politics in his last post. I'm not posting to attempt to answer that question, but instead to ask bloggers and authors to think about how many people they aren't reaching because of their word choice and sentence structure. In Che's last post, he quoted Bookchin, and I requote part of that here:

"For political radicals today to simply resuscitate Marxism, anarchism, or revolutionary syndicalism and endow them with ideological immortality would be obstructive to the development of a relevant radical movement."

What a mouthful. The little I have read of Bookchin is like that too. Why didn't he just say that if political radicals want a movement that works they should drop the idea of breathing life into old ideologies that weren't developed with the problems of today in mind.

In essence, my gripe here is that leading intellectuals alienate themselves from a large segment of the population because of their word choice and sentence construction. It doesn't matter what your great idea is on a new political movement or path forward if you can't explain it in clear, concise language.

I understand that sometimes choosing a relatively obscure word will save you from writing 50 other words to explain the idea, but that isn't always the case. How often do we get stuck in the trap of using 5 dollar words to sound smart. Has anyone ever thought that if they didn't use large words or write in a certain way they wouldn't be taken seriously. Forget about that! With the fast pace of today's society, if you can't reach an audience in the first go they aren't going to bother trying to decipher what you are trying to say.


troutsky said...

Brother John! You must be trying to read my blog!Im sure you are right about the "reaching out"part and I definitely hear this criticism on a regular basis.Chebob, Gregrandar, Char,others try to keep me intelligible to the "masses"but I resist.)plus I know my small audience and they aint the masses!)I admittedly do political philosophy for those with some background(here on my blog) and leave the pamphlet version to others.The scary thing is when I am reviewing Mouffe or Anderson or Debord I AM giving you the digest version, you should see the original text!I spend an hour on a page (or sentence)but love every second of it.What can I say?

On a deeper level, part of this project of building a democratic culture involves ,in my mind ,convincing people of the necessity of spending the time to tease out meaning, to decipher what is often nuanced and complex and to resist soundbite discourse.Explanation ,discussion,comprehension, and debate skills must be cultivated as well as a comfort with unresolved and unresolvable issues.I understand the pressure people are under time wise, hence the value placed on expediency and efficiency, but I believe it is in the end condescending to think people do not possess the capacity to do the harder work and grab the dictionary or research a term.I can't just say "freedom" or "justice" anymore without definitions but keeping them shorter is a good thing.Hope you are good John!Happy New Year.

Ché Bob said...

Compay John,

I'm with you on the frustration I feel reading a lot of social and cultural theory it seems like there is a lot of unnecessary language.

In fact, I'd like to add to this discussion by saying that my frustration isn't so much with the language of theorists that are using that language to extend and expand an innovative idea. My main frustration is with a theorists that uses language in vain attempts to sound smart. Like Chomsky said many theorists have no idea what they are talking about so they'll mask their inadequacies with "5 dollar words." On the other hand, there are some that are pushing us along and demanding our time and energy to move beyond our simple dualistic thinking.

For me, Bookchin is not unnecessarily verbose. He is cogent and coherent: a genuine and consistent intellectual.

I also agree with Troutsky about the dangers of sloganeering and dumbing our discourse down for the sake of time. Again in the abstract this discussion is impossible, but if we put your concerns in context we would see that timing and context will dictate the language we use. For example, using the Bookchin quote at a rally would be less effective than a simple slogan. But when the appropriate time comes, using a more nuanced and deep language makes sense as well.

blackstone said...

There's a time and place for everything. You really have to know who your audience is.

John in Montana said...

I'm aware of the dangers of sloganeering and overbroad rhetoric. I'm not advocating for you to use the word freedom or justice without explaining what those words mean to you. Instead, I'm asking you to explain what those words mean in a clear way; which seems to be an area I think many authors come up short.

I really think we can all write nuanced posts and still use simple sentences. While the posts will undobtedly be longer, they will be easier to follow. I wouldn't consider that dumbed down as much as I would consider it good editing.

I apologize if I came off condescending by giving the impression that I don't believe people don't possess the capacity to grab a dictionary or research a term. I just don't think most of us have that much time. And while I would agree that building a democratic culture involves encouraging critical thinking - teasing out meaning, thinking about nuanced arguments, etc., I don't think that critical thought or writing has to involve the use of complex sentences. Again, I think that you can make a very nuanced argument with very simple sentences.

I'd like to think that I can understand most nuanced arguments; the problem is that I don't have the time to first unravel what it is the author is trying to say, and then think about it critically, and then make an intellible response.

So I guess I don't entirely understand - do you think that you have to use complex sentences to get your point across? While one could say that I am lazy because I don't want to decipher what it is an author is trying to say, another could argue that the author is lazy for making the reader unravel it all by themself.

In terms of Blackstone's comment, I agree to a certain extent. Even when I am talking to a bunch of law professors, I still like to speak in "normal" parlance instead of the legalese that plagues the legal field. That brings up the question of whether well-educated people are capable of communicating with the relatively uneducated. I have some professors that use 5 dollar words every other word without thinking twice. I'm really not sure they would know how to communicate with your every day Joe.