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Ave, lector.

You may wish to skip down to the picture of Morpheus.  Read the following at your own risk.

During the previous session of my seminar on consequentialism (a class which I greatly enjoy participating in at this particular undergraduate institution), wherein we were discussing the finer points of Kagan’s Limits of Morality—specifically, his section regarding the vividification of beliefs on a global scale, and its implications for individual action.  As we were in the midst of this discussion, we were briefly interrupted by the parents of a student, who wished to sit in on the class and were cordially invited to join us.  While they sat in the corner with expressions of some interest, we returned to our dialectic, and as we spoke I became conscious of a point that had troubled me for some time.  I, being a student of anthropology, would characterize this as a linguistic point.

Within the academical world, if in possession of a modicum of learning, one can be uniquely situated to unpack the subtle intricacies of an intellectual nomenclature, expanding the meanings of a relatively unassuming sentence to their fullest implications.  However, despite this positionality which I possess, situated as I am within the folds of anthropological science, I am unequivocally repulsed by a specific tendency within the current scientific (and indeed, academic) institution.

Within the following paragraphs, I shall strive to set aside the cumbersome locutions which so spark my ire, and generate a more perspicuous representation of my own qualms regarding this flawed discourse—a discourse which is present not merely in my own studies, but in any scholastic setting, contributing perhaps to the alienation of the intellectual within our broader culture.


Simple version.

I was in class the other day.  We were talking about philosophy stuff.  One guy’s parents came in (they were visiting) and they decided to sit in (they wanted to see the class, and embarrass their son).  We said hi—and then we went right back to talking.  And as we were talking, I was thinking about what we sounded like.  We must have sounded crazy.  We used sentences much like the ones above, and it got me thinking: Why? Why do we make this stuff so complicated?

Once you drop into that ocean of big words, it’s easy to be hypnotized by it.  Easy to forget that not everyone can understand what it means if you say, for example –

“The practical privilege in which all scientific activity arises never more subtly governs that activity (insofar as science presupposes not only an epistemological break but also a social separation) than when, unrecognized as privilege, it leads to an implicit theory of practice which is the corollary of neglect of the social conditions in which science is possible. The anthropologist’s particular relation to the object of his study contains the makings of a theoretical distortion inasmuch as his situation as an observer, excluded from the real play of social activates by the fact that he has no place (except by choice or way of a game) in the system observed and has no need to make a place for himself there, inclines him to a hermeneutic representation of practices, leading him to reduce all social relations to communicative relations and, more precisely, to decoding operations.”  

That was Bourdieu again.  Some of you may recognize him. And what he’s saying is that it’s very common for people to get wrapped up in science, to forget that all those things that they know aren’t known by everyone else.  Which can lead a lot of the time to conversations that go like this:  A well-meaning academic says “Excuse me, I think that this one thing has potential implications hidden beneath its simple indexical meaning that make me uncomfortable with the ways in which it reinforces a patriarchal system of power.”  And the person they’re talking to has no idea what they’re saying.

I’ve always thought that the best way to learn a subject is to explain it to an eleven-year old.  It doesn’t even have to be a kid.  But whether you’re explaining Plato’s Myth of Gygas, Bourdieu’s critique of the concept of social rules, the interactions of subatomic particles, or the inner workings of a vintage Daimler-Benz twelve-cylinder engine—if you can explain any one of those things, or anything else you know a lot about, in the smallest words possible? Then you don’t just know how to say the idea—you know what it means.

Try it!  Think about what you’re good at.  Try to explain it to someone—a younger sibling, a parent, a close friend.  Use small words.  Personally, I hate all this fancy-ass academic language.  I mercilessly make fun of it.

The whole purpose of writing and speaking is to have someone understand you.  Some of my own blog posts have gotten technical in the past, and I apologize for that.  But thinking about this reminds me of another point—remember where you’re speaking from.  I think the word ‘positionality’ is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard.  But luckily there’s a word with a very similar meaning: POSITION.

Remember who you are.  If you know words like “heteronormativity,” chances are that you are situated in a position of privilege not enjoyed by every individual in our culture.  And if you understood that sentence without rereading it, the same is still true.  Not everyone has had a chance to learn big words—or to learn the ideas behind them, like “heteronormativity.” And even if it seems intuitive to you, getting angry at someone for not understanding this is like someone yelling at you because you don’t know how to secure the hydraulic clutch in a restored Daimler-Benz DB601.

So check your damn privilege.  And use tiny words.  I’m sure you have something important to say—everyone does.  But wouldn’t it be better to say it so that everyone can understand?

Stay spiffy, my friends.


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