In defence of long words

I’m not on Twitter so I normally miss this kind of crap. As an increasing number of friends are coming to the conclusion that having more single-sentence conversations on their smart phones will significantly improve their daily lives, however, I am starting to catch wind of some of the faecal matter that gets flung between TweetDeck, Co-Tweet, and whatever.

This week saw the so-called Escalate Collective publish their second communiqué, a critical analysis of the TUC march on the 26th last month. I don’t really want to go into what that piece says (Escalate speak for themselves) as much as I want to retort some of the criticisms I’ve heard against it. In particular, Labourite member of the Twitterati Owen Jones levelled some accusations against the piece which I find quite troubling, and yet simultaneously pretty insightful; as a well-connected member, Owen is someone whose views I take to be emblematic of attitudes in the Labour party (or at least its “left-wing”) at large.

I have a lot of respect for Owen despite disagreeing with his politics. I think he is certainly sincere about his beliefs, and he is an intelligent guy. It is for this reason that I’m disappointed to find him slating Escalate for not being “accessible” to ordinary working-class folk. He steers well clear of engaging with any of the collective’s arguments, laying his focus solely on the form in which they are presented – a mixture of academic and aphoristic language. Strange behaviour from a PhD candidate.

Owen’s objections are grounded in an assumption that Escalate are writing “for the masses” rather than for more seasoned activists. As far as I can tell, Escalate have no pretension to replace the Daily Mirror. In fact, in their description, Escalate state outright that they are from the University of London. They might even be workers, but they certainly don’t hide the academic envrionment from which they write.

Just because something is not populist does not mean it is not accessible. Articulating yourself well doesn’t mean that you are necessarily difficult for everyone to understand. Long words do not necessitate inaccessibility. I would say that the Escalate piece on the whole is actually pretty masterfully glued together – virtually every sentence is saturated with thought and does not take long to deliver its point.

The basic belief underpinning Owen’s argument is that “the working-class” (rather than sections of it) are too under-educated to follow the arguments. This is chiefly classist nonsense. (Workerism proves itself to be its own opposite.) While there are no doubt too many workers who would not care for the language Escalate use, or who do not have the sufficient “cultural capital” to access it, to outright deny their potential to understand is problematic and means that ultimately under-educated workers may never be offered the opportunity to access such culture – or not by Owen’s Labour party at any rate. Besides, I’m certain there are a whole lot of upper-class people whose eyes would also glaze over if you read them some Escalate, Tiqqun, or similar. This isn’t about the working-class vs. the intelligentsia.

This kind of lowest common denominator politics which Owen propounds seems to underwrite his entire party: from Labour’s apparent relationship with the working-class,* to the arid politics of its leadership. If Ed Miliband were a word, he would certainly be a short one. He might not even be a four-letter word. When opposition to public sector spending cuts is boiled down to a non-assertive appeal for “growth” – rather than a principled defence of public services as such – it is scarcely oppositional at all; but the lowest common denominator trumps, and working within a capitalist framework, that common denominator will always be capital itself.

* And yet when was the last time anyone read a Labour party manifesto? In Owen’s opinion, should his party save their energy and distribute free lollipops to working-class voters instead? It might prove to be a better tactic to win back lost votes from workers than Ed** Balls’ promises to shaft them slightly less hard over a longer period of time.

** Why the fuck are they all called “Ed”?

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3 Responses to In defence of long words

  1. Owen Jones says:

    Cheers for this Greg. To be honest my point wasn’t actually that working-class people per se (and certainly not “ordinary working-class folk”, a phrase I would never dream of using) are excluded. Neither was it “they” would be incapable of following the arguments. Class came in to it mostly because we were discussing John Carey’s book ‘The Intellectuals and the Masses’, which is about how elite intellectuals reacted to the rise of mass literacy in the 19th century by developing jargon, complex language etc in order to keep “the masses” out.

    My fear is that some highly *formally* educated leftists are writing in a way that is inaccessible to most people (regardless of class) who are outside a very small academic elite. Yes, this style of writing does strike me as pretentious, but my main worry is people writing in a way that only those who have gone through similarly rigorous academic training can really understand. It’s not just “long words”, it’s often jargon.

    Of course class comes into it in the sense middle-class people have far greater educational advantages and opportunities than anyone else.

    I think the rule should always be to use the simplest word available that still conveys your meaning. I don’t know what is served by restricting who can properly understand your argument by using words or terms that are really just not very necessary.

    I’m interested in the left looking at ways to build a mass movement using arguments that resonate with a broad mass of people. This is very difficult in a climate where the media is run by right-wing oligarchs and the political establishment sing from the same tune: or, “neo-liberal hegemony”, to use a bit of jargon. We don’t help ourselves by using language that excludes alienate: I think it’s both undemocratic and, dare I say it, vanguardist.

    It’s also the sort of thing that 1960s/70s student new leftists got in the habit of doing, and it certainly didn’t help them advance their cause.

    You say it’s “strange behaviour for a PhD candidate”, but almost by definition PhD candidates are writing for a very small academic audience. In any case, I have a massive problem with academia, actually, precisely because it all too often uses language with little other purpose than to exclude: I’d like to see academia completely democratised from top to bottom, but that’s probably a separate discussion.

    These are my thoughts on language.

    And here is Alex Snowden, a prominent member of Counterfire.

  2. Owen Jones says:

    Oh – as for the comments about the Labour Party: I’m not quite sure why a member of the Labour left from the ‘McDonnellite’ wing is being conflated with the positions of the Labour leadership. My basis for being in the Labour Party is its link with trade unions representing millions of workers, and therefore that it is the only hope for working-class representation in this country.

    I want Labour to move to a ‘no-cuts’ position, but we need to win rank-and-file and – in a broader sense – popular support for this. As things stand, the majority of people believe cuts are necessary/unavoidable; unsurprising after several years of being bombarded with ‘There Is No Alternative’ propaganda from right-wing politicians and media outlets, and the lack of a coherent alternative from the Labour leadership. When I go canvassing this is striking – often a fear etc of cuts, but a belief there just isn’t another way.

    My position on the “new” student movement is that is extremely inspiring and a massive step forward – but I do fear repeats of mistakes made by the student ‘new leftism’ of the 60s/70s which rejected the central political role played by working-class people organized as a movement.

  3. I’d come at this from pretty much the opposite perspective. I think there are some really valuable points in this old article, particularly
    “Emphatically, this does not mean an end to theorising. What it does mean is that all members have the right to discuss ideas they are all fully capable of understanding in the sort of language that is acceptable to the world at large. Any ideas or theories worth discussing can ultimately be translated into everyday language, and as far as I am concerned, this applies in principle even to Hegel! Perhaps a few of us should try? We need no intellectual vanguards, and one of the conditions of dispensing with them is to render any decent ideas from the past (let alone the present!) into normal language so that the gurus are out of a job for good.”
    Of course, there’s a difference between being in favour of long/difficult words (or at least defending the right to use them) in principle, and thinking the use of a particular long word in a given piece of writing is useful or necessary. Without invoking any abstract notion of “the working class”, I’d say that I personally find the Escalate collective’s writing style off-putting. When they talk about “the cloddish asininities emblazoned in grim edible pinks” (is it possible for pink to be grim? I’d have thought it was pretty much the least grim colour you can get), I don’t feel like they’re using that language because they think it’s the most straightforward way to communicate their ideas; to me, at least, it feels like they’re using it to communicate their status as intellectuals.
    Ultimately, I think that anyone who’s committed to the communist project of breaking down the separation between politics and everyday life needs to be working towards the abolition of all political specialists, whether they’re populist Labour MPs, Bolshevik professional revolutionaries, or radical academics. I think anyone who wants to do that needs to think seriously about the role that specialist language plays in the reproduction of politics as a specialised sphere of activity.

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