Social sciences academics might queue with rants over this article, including my boyfriend, but I have to say it. I hate books with academic language, if their privileged writing shall reach “everyone”. Well, you know, not everyone, just the clever people. Not the dumb ones. Only the ones, who studied euphemisms of applied gender gentrification (Don’t worry, that’s utter nonsense, if you find a way to make sense of this PLEASE COMMENT NOW).
I find it especially funny, when people talking about privilege use privileged language.
Here’s my experience and view on privileged writing and why I think, that it is not only pretentious but dangerous.
Academic writing for everyone
First off, the definition of academic writing in itself actually means, it addresses the people, who speak that academic language. And if books and articles are for that specific target group, it makes sense. I’m not challenging the boring writing style of scientific studies. That is just my personal grudge.
To make things clearer, I’m also not challenging the use of technical vocabulary among experts. It is necessary, since technical vocabulary abbreviates matters, that normally need longer descriptions. Saving time, experts can quickly get to the actually important parts.
The problem lies within non-fictional writing, that addresses everyone interested in the topic but uses privileged language.
I studied Psychology for a year, and we had to write a study in teams of three. I was lucky, because I got the conclusion, which is the most understandable and openly written part. Otherwise I’d have run. Far.
The dangers of privileged writing
We seldomly complain about privileged writing. There are few book reviews, that plainly say: I didn’t get it. That is because it makes us feel uneducated and we don’t want people to know. But we cannot know and study everything. Let me mention one book here and admit to my ‘ignorance’.
I loved The Martian by Andy Weir but I really did not like reading about the detailed process of setting up his survival methods. Only, when I told that to another Bookstagrammer, she admitted she struggled through these parts, either. I would have put the book away at this point, if I didn’t know my boyfriend loved it. (And I’m glad I read on, because the story’s pace soon increases). However, Andy Weir still puts effort into explaining things and it definitely is a treat for all space nerds. While this is definitely not accessible writing for everyone, excluding this part would be a loss for the group, who loves the chemical and biological descriptions. There is no black and white with privileged writing.
However, it is a good example to explain some of the dangers, non-accessible language carries.
#1 People stop reading because they are bored.
#2 Non-fiction texts for non-academics with the purpose of explaining: If your readers don’t get it, you missed the point of your writing.
#3 Your theory might be interesting, but no one will understand it. Only the academics, who know your language. As I said, that’s fine, if they’re the target readers.
#4 Readers might get so annoyed they cannot understand your point that they refuse to see it.
#5 Writing technical vocabulary without explaining it is insulting to the reader. It practically says: You haven’t learned that word, you’re not educated enough to be in the circle of people who are privileged to know my theory.
#6 You could make the point for which people wanted an explanation for, even more confusing.
Long words and complicated sentences
Not only non-fiction and articles are guilty of privileged writing. Especially Germans love their long, complicated words and nested sentences. While words can be beautiful, are paragraphs consisting of a single sentence really necessary? Some like to think about it. But can you not think about the matter when it is explained with periods? Without the need of pulling the sentence apart until you get it and can finally think about the actual matter? That is my personal opinion and connected to more conditions, for example the addressed audience. Even though, this leads us to another danger:
#7 Dressing up your words in a way, nobody really understands what you are saying, because you don’t understand it yourself. Or is it a defense mechanism? Most times I read such a complicate way of phrasing things, in the end I just thought ‘Why don’t you get to the freakin’ point, hun?’. This is one of the first things I learned about writing.
If we don’t understand it, we cannot feel or imagine it, and if that doesn’t work, it’s boring.
Examples and acknowledgement of simple language
Though this is about the written word, the way a doctor speaks to their patients is a good example to refer to. At university, there is no subject for translating technical vocabulary back into conversational talk, once you have acquired it. This comes with training – and you will still get your doctor’s license, if you cannot properly explain stuff to your patients. However, most doctors, who are in conscious face-to-face contact with patients, care to explain in a way, their patients understand them. Strike out latin words or show, where the affected muscle or bone is. Describe the diagnosis, don’t only use its name.
One of the main jobs of a pharmacist is consultation. Explaining what a pill does, so that your customer understands you.
Is it such a mystery then, to write an accessible piece with the sole purpose of explaining?
The Blog WAITBUTWHY for example, does a marvelous job at explaining complicated things. Let us take his article about procrastination as an example. He starts with an accessible definition of procrastination. In the text he thinks of funny words like “Instant Gratification Monkey” or “Panic Monster” and once we read what they mean we easily reuse them because he created an image of them in our heads.
Simplification can be an art and never means it is simple for the writer.
Accessibility versus Over-Simplification
Why is YouTube so successful? Because we want to know things, we don’t need to take a 3-year-long class for.
Still, YouTube-University is looked down upon. Why? Because simplifying things carries one danger next to wrong explanations: Misinforming people by way of leaving out information.
I’m telling you this to make clear, that simplification isn’t the one and only goal for every single text. Not when information is left out. And it doesn’t mean, that everything that is simple, is good. Often cone-headed people (a term for people, who indulge into conspiracy theories) are experts at simple explanations. But they love to leave out or willfully ignore other important factors, just to make their theory more believable.
Simplification does not only reach more people. It persuades and sometimes even manipulates them.
You all know rumours, right? Why can rumours be so damaging to a reputation? Because we only know, Lizzy betrayed Gatsby. We don’t know, that Gatsby ignored her for three months, gaslighted her and left her alone, when she had a nervous breakdown.
Gaslighting is a psychological form of manipulation, often happening in relationships. Lizzy tells Gatsby he acts differently, then Gatsby makes Lizzy feel like something must be wrong with herself to think that. He does that to avoid her finding out the real problem.
When is writing unnecessarily privileged?
It is hard to set boundaries and categories, since there are so many conditions and exceptions. We like our language to develop, too. For readers: If you are the author’s addressed audience, it depends on you. When the writing is so complex you don’t get it or have to concentrate to get it, you most probably have found a piece of some privileged writing.
Lately, I bought a German feminist magazine called Missy Magazine. Being an intersectional feminist (you find an explanation and an example for the term here), I’m sorry, I have to talk in this way about fellow intersectional feminists. But when you preach “Check your privilege”, you cannot sit down and write in such a privileged way, that readers, who didn’t have classes in gender studies, barely get you. Obviously, this wasn’t the case for all articles. My specific example is, ironically, a term explanation of the word sexpositivity. Funnily enough, I thought I understood the word and knew its meaning. After I read this definition, I was more confused about the word than I was before.
Where is the use of informing people about a term, when you write your definition in a way, they cannot understand it?
Writing Advice to avoid privileged writing
Ask yourself: Do you want to show off to your former prof or do you want to explain something? Define your target group and don’t be a prick. Write accessible: Talk to them, so they can understand you.
There is always the possibility of the writer saying, if you don’t get it, you’re not my target group. But this kind of self-betrayal would make things a little bit too easy for us, wouldn’t it?