March 21, 2013

The Power of Technical Language

Deputy Editor of the New Statesman, Helen Lewis said something interesting on the Pod Delusion this week. Speaking to James O’Malley about feminism she said that ‘intersectionality’ was a great idea, but that she hated the word.

Let’s quickly step back a moment. Intersectionality studies the overlap (or ‘intersections’, I guess) between all the minority groups; the idea of bringing intersectionality into feminism is to prevent it becoming a white, middle-class action. By understanding that discrimination and the fight for equality blends across racial, sexual and social classifications, people can become better and more informed about how to narrow the equality gap. I think it was Beth Presswood (GodlessBitches) who described the revelation as a rhetorical question (paraphrased): ‘if you were to stack up the different types of people: who has a more privileged position – a black man or a white woman?’

So, back to Helen Lewis (and I’m not actually responding to or rebutting Lewis, rather rebounding from a singular point she made). The point Lewis was making was that she believed words like ‘intersectionality’ are useful in that they describe a concept as yet uncollected, but the word itself remains in the domain of more rigorous debate. It’s useful to actual egalitarian thinkers when engaging in discussion but isolating to the layperson to whom you may be trying to open an understanding.
What’s this boils down to in a more general sense is – is technical language a barrier to discussion and introducing ideas?

I have an urge to answer ‘no’. This might be because I tend to approach things (if I’m interested) in an academic way and make the effort to explore and understand if I’m going to engage with a topic. So there may be some personal bias here, I’ll admit. But language and words are powerful gateway tools to understanding. The concept of intersectionality may take a little bit of introduction, but once I understood it, it was an incredible useful term. It describes quite a lot in seven syllables. If I was exploring  why there aren’t a lot of women in (say) architecture and someone told me to think more intersectionally, I would understand more immediately that whatever the issue was, it ran across several minorities. It’s made understanding other new words like ‘kierarchy’ much simpler, because kierarchy is just the intersectional form of patriarchy.

Introducing technical or academic language takes a little more time, but over the long term (even the length of a conversation) it allows you to make larger leaps forward, making secondary and tertiary concepts much more accessible. For example, I could spend ten minutes clearing up nuclear fusion and nuclear fission and then we could have a much more involved discussion about the ramifications of the difference fuel and reactor types. Without including people in your language you may never be able to allow them the deeper understanding that gives them the power to make decisions and form opinions in the future.

Granted, if you’ve got seven minutes on LBC to convey an idea in an interview (as Lewis described) then you don’t have the power to do that. I understand that. But I wouldn’t go as far as called the word ‘intersectionality’ and other academic language ‘terrible’. Oh, no.

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