Readability and the spread of ideas

Reading this anarchist communique gave me a lot to think about:

Confronted with those who refuse to recognize themselves in our orgies of destruction, we offer neither sympathy nor dialogue but only our scorn. It is necessary to commence for once and for all; not to dream of new ways to organize, but to make manifest the subterranean communes in the heart of each c-clamped pushbar. We must reject all mobilization—in secret. In the realization of zones of offensive capacity, we destroy those who would have us give up the singular ecstasy of rupture for the misery of impotentiality.

Isn’t it amazing? It really explains everything so beautifully, and–fine. It was created with a generator, though to my eyes, it is indistinguishable from the real thing.

There is a lot of literature from feminists, anarchists, theorists and combinations of the above that I simply cannot follow. I do not think that I am stupid. I do not think that I am too poorly-read and dull-witted to comprehend the intricacies of such pieces. I think they might be badly written.

Coming from a science background, it was beaten into me that good writing was something that anyone could understand–one lays out one’s points clearly. People can then act upon the points, understanding what has been written. While learning to write, I was taught that clarity was crucial, and that if something was written densely, the fog of long words and impenetrable prose was probably hiding a distinct lack of a point. So I am naturally wary of anything which is not easy to immediately understand.

Most of what is written in opaque prose probably does have good points and good ideas concealed within. The problem is, it is difficult to find what it is supposed to mean. And from that, it is difficult to act upon what is being said. Feminists and anarchists have long been accused of academic elitism. This is of course the case when half of our engagement with people is so unreadable.

I suggested the other day that we should stop worrying about what the mainstream media thinks of us, and that to counter this we need better propaganda. When our propaganda is so throughly arcane, how can it propagate?

Beyond the dense academic prose, two other problems often occur in literature and discussion in spreading ideas. First is gross oversimplification. This is, quite simply, insufficient for communication. The other problem is an excess of managerial language.

Adam Curtis argued that this shift was due to internalisation of neoliberal thought–that we became managers of a revolution. I would suggest, though, that at least some of it is a reaction to the use of florid academia in communication: at face value, managerial language is more readable, as it uses shorter, more common words. However, it is just as easy to disguise a distinct lack of point in jargonish manager-speak as it is to hide behind a barrage of long words. There is also the fact that it is much easier to communicate process rather than ideas in managerial language.

We are therefore largely stuck with business waffle communicating process, and impenetrable waffle communicating ideas, or a horribly simplified piece of writing which can communicate neither process nor ideas.

There are alternatives, though. It is perfectly easy to spread ideas and propose methods without falling into any of the above traps: speak plainly and clearly. These anarchist communiques showcase nicely how such a thing can be achieved. They lay out arguments about wage labour coherently, without losing anything to oversimplification. It is a complex message which is made easy to understand. It is the sort of communication which needs to happen more often.

I do not think this is a big ask. Better writing costs nothing intellectually, and has the potential to make a big difference.

I ask, clearly and concisely: write what you mean.

15 thoughts on “Readability and the spread of ideas”

  1. While I certainly agree that some of the stuff we come out with is incomprehensible, I’m not entirely convinced by the instant accusations of elitism or deliberate obfuscation. Now, I don’t write dense anarchist communiques, but as someone who for much of my life has been accused of intellectual elitism and attempting to bamboozle people with long words I’ll try to offer a defence.

    When we’re young and we’re learning to express ourselves we are taught to constantly push ourselves to learn and use new words and to keep exploring increasingly sophisticated ways to structure and present an argument. At no point, until the accusations of elitism are thrown, are we told to stop. I think that the kind of academic language you describe is aspirational; people feel that they need to use the best language they can to communicate their ideas and be taken seriously.

    If this linguistic adventurousness ends up making the intended meaning impossible to fathom then it is just bad writing; but just because something is badly written doesn’t mean the author is elitist or that they are attempting to cover up the fact that they have nothing of value to say. Some people are just bad writers, and being an intelligent academic or having brilliant political ideas to write about doesn’t guarantee you won’t be one of them.

    There’s more to say here, especially about how people who have had the opportunity to read around the subject and learn the the jargon are criticised by those who haven’t or have chosen not to, but I’ll end by saying that I’m deeply uncomfortable writing a sentence in my own, natural wording and then deciding that it’s not simple enough for people to read.

    Using long words isn’t elitist; assuming that others can’t understand them is.

    1. Interesting thoughts, Dave, and I certainly hope I made it clear that it’s a personal reflexive response that obfuscation is taking place. I would certainly agree with you that some of it is down to experimenting with style.

      I do think, though, that when one is trying to spread ideas, consideration of audience is essential. A lot of people do this very well–were I not mildly concerned people would think my blog a front for yours, I might have linked your post on war memorials as being a brilliant example of a good, complex argument that is eminently readable!

      You are, of course, right about the assumption that folk can’t understand being equally elitist. I wonder how it can be possible to reconcile these concepts?

  2. There are now three people here who know how to use colons and semi-colons.

    This is a most unusual for a blog.

    I have been writing professionally on and off for over twenty years, nevertheless in front of me now, I have printed on a post-card, VS Naipaul’s “Advice To Writers” and a copy of Collins Webster’s Easy Learning Writing.

    I council humility (and Orwell).

  3. Hear hear. Einstein said it well: ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’.

    I believe that if you are trying to communicate broadly, you should use common language that all can understand.

    I recognise @mediocredave’s description of how we acquire academic knowledge (especially in the humanities). My journey into feminist theory came to an abrupt halt when things started getting ridiculous.

    In my job, I crusade for plain speaking, and constantly have to fight the accusation that I am a supporter of ‘dumbing down’. Curiously, some of those with the smallest vocabularies are the most vocal supporters of complicated sentences, which I think shows how difficult it will be to erase this snobbery of thought.

    Don’t get me wrong, I adore long, specialised, rarely used words. But there is a time and a place for them, and politics ain’t it.

  4. Some good points made by Dave there, but I still tend to agree with Stavvers and Orwell in his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English language’.

    It isn’t so much that I think others can’t understand some academic writing, but that I find it obtuse myself, and I’d like to think I’m pretty well-read and of reasonable intelligence.

    Often people deliberately opt for a less widely understood word when a more common one would suffice [do]. While studying journalism I was taught that using certain ‘in words’ gives writing an exclusivity that magazines particularly like. That’s fine if corporate publications want to ‘add value’, but if you’re in the game of spreading ideas, it’s counter productive.

    Orwell’s essay:

    1. Thanks for linking this essay; I hadn’t read it, and it say most of what I wanted to say far more eloquently. #damnyouorwell

  5. There’re two problems here as I see it: First, we’re up against a right wing tabloid media whose content requires a reading age of just 8 to read & understand. Second, we use a lot of jargon, much of which consists of words that people otherwise fairly ignorant of marxism, socialism, feminism etc have already used for centuries with quite different meanings, even if we’re referring to the same thing. It’s largely because we have radically different basic assumptions from mainstream society & it’s tedious to have to constantly re-state those assumptions to the ignorant. Maybe we could link to a glossary of left-wing / anarchist / feminist terms & have some kind of script highlight defined terms so when you mouse over them online the definition shows up in a little bubble, & have a glossary page in most paper publications? At the very least we could run a FOG index tool over what we write.

  6. It’s funny, I’m currently having the opposite problem. I’m writing my dissertation on the anarchist analysis of power and am trying to academicise the plain writing of Emma Goldman and Rudolf Rocker. Yet, I still can’t grok what ontology actually is! I’ve had different responses from different lecturers to my writing, which is generally quite straight-forward and readable due to many years as a journalist, some like it, some have criticised it.

    1. I’ve always rather liked your style. Incidentally, I would put Emma Goldman as my favourite anarchist writer: very readable, but not at the expense of solid content. I haven’t read Rocker yet, but I’ll give him a go if he’s as readable as Goldman.

      1. Very much so, amazing given that he knew much more about history, philosophy and political theory. He was a much more prolific writer than Goldman, alas, most of his work has never been translated from the original German/Yiddish.

  7. I think this is a fascinating issue. I’ve been involved in communications of various sorts for nearly 20 years and your point about ‘writing what you mean’ is key, but it is, I think, only 50% of it.

    It’s basic semiotics. The message is not just what you create, but (as Matt mentions) what your audience interprets from it. I’d take issue (respectfully) with Dave’s point – if I am reading something about politics, I don’t really care about you as the writer or your endeavours as a creative. I care about the application of your concepts and ideas in my own worldview and, most importantly, I want to be able to actually get a workable understanding of them without spraining my brain. Assuming that people can’t understand long words, as you put it, isn’t elitist – it’s absolutely true. Thinking that this makes them somehow inferior – *that* is elitist. Assuming that everyone is a secret or wannabe intellectual is elitist. Not making the effort to engage with people with different priorities or intellectual goals from you as a political theorist… again, elitist.

    So that, I think, is the other 50%. ‘Writing what you mean’ is fine, but ‘writing for your audience, not for yourself’ is just as important – if not, then keep a damn diary. As for what should be published – we need more snappy Little Red Books, fewer magnum opii Capitals. If we don’t want to be accused of elitism, don’t write just for the elite; to use McLuhan a little out of context – the medium is the message.

    And re: your point about becoming ‘managers of the revolution’ – I think Bakunin nailed the hazards around this nearly a century and a half ago.

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