The Left and the Politics of Writing Style

A lot of leftists write in a very technical, academic, and pretentious manner. Why do they do this?

I’ve come up with three reasons. First, and most obviously, people mirror how those they read or talk to communicate. They read a book and find themselves copying its language, or they have a conversation and end up talking more and more like their conversation partner. This is just what humans do. They copy each other. In the case of the left this means copying words like “means of production”, “rupture”, or “the ideological state apparatus”.

Second, people gain a sense of superiority and self-worth from communicating and thinking in a highly academic fashion. Through their speech they are able to demonstrate that they, unlike most people, have read famous authors and can effectively deploy the latest fashionable jargon. Doing so is especially important for gaining in-group currency among other like minded individuals. If you cannot name drop the right authors and concepts then you’re clearly not well read enough and lack intellectual depth. People often learn this habit at university where in seminars and essays they try to please and impress the academics who assess them. Indeed, at many universities the academics insist as part of the marking criteria that their students write in this manner.

Third, when you communicate in an unclear pretentious manner it is very easy to say things that you yourself don’t properly understand, let alone your audience, but which have the appearance of insight. This ability proves useful when you are searching for something to say in an argument or are struggling to phrase an idea in writing. Instead of carefully and painstakingly trying to articulate an idea as clearly as possible, you opt for the easier approach of writing a long sentence full of as much jargon as possible.

Defenders of these styles of communication may insist that these things occur in all sub-cultures. Mountain climbers, for instance, will use terms that you will not hear out of their circle, such as ‘free solo’, and may try to gain in-group status through their knowledge of all the right climbing language. While all groups of friends develop in-jokes and slang that outsiders will not understand. The inward facing nature of in-group language is not a problem for these groups, so why should it be an issue for the left? The answer is that most groups are happy to only communicate amongst themselves and have no need to do otherwise. The radical left is not such a group. They aim for the abolition of systems of power by the oppressed themselves. Building up to such a point of revolution requires that millions of people come to understand these systems of power, that an alternative is possible and desirable, and that there are effective means to make this alternative a reality. With such an emancipatory mission, the left cannot afford to be inward facing. It must, if it is to achieve its goal, reach broader audiences and grow its numbers. As a result, the usually harmless creation of in-group language through mirroring becomes a problem. This is especially so when what is being copied and reproduced, academic leftist language, is impenetrable to most people alive and difficult and time consuming to learn. Given this, how we write is not politically neutral. Writing unclearly about issues of importance prevents people from understanding these issues. This helps perpetuate oppression by preventing the oppressed from improving their knowledge and so gaining the understanding required to change society.

Some may argue in response that some ideas are just too complex to be expressed in clear simple terms. While this is true in many cases, the only way to know if it is true in a particular case is to actually try and write about the topic clearly. I frequently find when I do so that my expression of the idea in complex terms was not a sign of deep insight, but instead a mask to hide my own lack of understanding. Hence why a mark of true understanding is so often the ability to explain something complex in a clear manner.

Second, writing clearly is a skill which is only developed through practice. It is not something that you can just do. A musician does not learn to play well unless they practice. The same is true with writing. Those who write in a technical academic manner choose to devote their energies to developing their ability to communicate in this style. Hence why they find it easier to write like this than write clearly. They practice writing unclearly and then wonder why they find it so hard to write clearly. The only way to change this situation is to consciously put in the hours developing a clear writing style. I have spent much of my time deliberately trying to unlearn how my education taught me to write and aim in videos to communicate academic ideas in a manner that is accessible to non-academics. Whether or not I’ve succeeded at this is for others to decide.

2 thoughts on “The Left and the Politics of Writing Style”

  1. It took me at least THREE YEARS of blogging to get to a point where my style was somewhat digestible, and I’m still not there. I’ve always been insecure about coming off as pretentious, but what made me seriously try and change course were 1. my exposure to academic philosophy (which is where the complexity argument holds to an extent, although I would still argue a lot of jargon is unnecessary) and 2. predictably, Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”. Although leftist jargon (I’m mostly familiar with the feminist kind) doesn’t aim to obscure problems like euphemisms generally do, I agree that their purpose is self-defeating. All that is to say, thanks for pointing this out and thanks for following through on your promise. I’m sure it’s made my first encounters with anarchism a lot easier. 🙂

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