Feigning intelligence with inaccessible language

October 25, 2012
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

By Ryan Sparrow

So, the other day I ventured to the Phoenix - the Grad students’ pub at McMaster for those who are unfamiliar - with some friends of mine.

Someone who I had just recently met joined us. This self-identified educator seemed to have good values, but when actually speaking to him, he wanted to show just how much more intelligent he was by saying something incredibly simple in the most jargon-ridden and inaccessible way possible.

Now, I am not new to reading dense political theory laden with terms and concepts that may be a bit inaccessible and take some specific knowledge within a field to understand, but this fellow started using terms and concepts in a way I didn’t understand.

So I asked this fellow, which up until this point I considered a nice person, to tell me what he meant in ‘laymen’s’ terms.

His response was, “I’m not going to dumb down what I am trying to say.” This is a pretty big contrast from his “to ending all oppression” cheer he gave when we got our pints.

I’m sure all of us have encountered some of this elitist language being thrown around. In our course packs, peer-reviewed journals, and academic books, some of the academics throw in as many big words (i.e. jargon-laden language which is only meant for academics to understand) as possible just to appear like they have something relevant to say.

Academics, who state their quest to ending oppression, should not be stuck up. They should learn how to relay a message in a way that the people, victims of the said oppression, can understand. Otherwise they are just being oppressive.

In the struggle to fight oppression, language itself is a battleground. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it, and who you say it to, which matters.

If you are using language that only a privileged minority of the population can understand, you are, I’m afraid, excluding a wide range of people.

If you only plan on writing in a way that only those who belong to the Ivory Tower can understand, it is important to mention that they are predominately not poor folk from marginalized backgrounds. I’m afraid that you, in this act, are reproducing privilege and excluding working people from the conversation.

And yes, sometimes it is not 100 per cent possible to avoid the use of big words, as there are concepts that do require a big word or pre-understood concept to discuss more in-depth on a topic.

So, this is not to say we should not use “big words” or “academic-speak,” but much like salt, use it only when necessary. When you use a “big word” please for the sake of democratic and accessible language, explain it if at all possible.

I get it; you want appear smart to impress someone. Some do this by using “big words” and advance concepts to show how intelligent they think they are. But I will go on record and say it - if you cannot explain it, you look ridiculous.

If you refuse to, you look like an elitist jerk. You can appear twice as smart by following the KISS principle, i.e., “keep it simple, stupid”.

If you truly want to help end oppression, keep in mind that one big part of it is to broaden the conversation so everyone has an ability to participate, listen, learn and speak. It’s all part of ending oppression.

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