All too often, I see my peers discourse about important issues with jargon and buzzwords that sound nice but don’t explain their viewpoints. We talk and write about “oppression,” view things as “problematic” or “complicated,” and use buzzwords like “intersectionality” or “patriarchal.” When attending rallies or reading articles, we constantly hear “disrupt the system,” “engender a mindset shift” or “smash oppressive structures in society.”
But what do these words actually mean? If your answer is (1) you don’t know, or (2) whatever one interprets them to mean, then there is a lack of effective communication. If people cannot understand one another, they merely talk through and not to each other.
In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell talks about the connection between the poor use of English and the tendency to lose one’s ability to think critically. When our phrases are full of euphemisms, convoluted phrasing and stale metaphors, we don’t think when we speak but rather sew phrases together mindlessly. And if nobody understands what we’re saying, are our statements or conversations truly valuable?
This imprecise, jargon-y language also makes it extremely difficult for those in social movements to engage with others. It turns these movements into elitist organizations where only the well-educated can participate in “conversation.” The success of any social movement is founded on its ability to allow a critical mass in society to subscribe to its beliefs and sway public opinions as a force for change. Epistemic communities exist on many college campuses where student advocates interact only with people of their own intellectual status, but for social change to succeed, people from all walks of life need to come together to advocate for change, not just well-educated college attendees. The Rust Belt industrial worker matters just as much, and spewing phrases like “intersectional feminism,” “internalized superiority” or “microaggression” might not be the most inclusive. I’m not suggesting that such individuals are incapable of comprehending such phrases; rather, there are better ways to engage with those who aren’t well-versed in social justice jargon. Movements have to be open to all — from parents, to service workers, to small business workers, to everyone in between — to succeed and thrive. It is self-defeating if the words we use to combat exclusion in society are themselves exclusionary.
I value social movements and their capacities to cause meaningful change for our society. Regardless of what side of the political spectrum you’re on, it is worth noting that our democratic institutions allow us to assemble, speak and use the press to affect our communities on issues we are passionate about. However, good intentions are not enough. Don’t just stop on generalities; explain exactly what we should care about and why. A good example would be Rice’s Critical Thinking in Sexuality workshops that actually define what sexual assault is so students understand how to avoid specific behaviors. It’s easy to default to using cookie-cutter phrases when discussing social issues — I admit that I too fall prey to calling issues “problematic” to avoid talking about specifics.
Precise language is extremely important to communicate actionable change and to build broad-based movements across society. Like Orwell, I acknowledge that the phrases I speak and write — this piece included — aren’t flawless specimens of English usage. Nevertheless, I still strongly advocate that we take the time to read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” In addition, to communicate effectively and be good advocates of political and social change, we should not be so quick to use buzzwords like “oppressive,” “bigoted” or “deplorable,” but actually explain how we see the term. So KISS M(e): Keep It Simple, Social Movements.