A succinct term for a concept is great, but only if everyone involved views it similarly. If you're trying to write something persuasive, controversial terms are traps that can derail discussion and make finding common ground harder. Consider limiting yourself to well understood terms to avoid distracting from your core argument.

One of my favorite comments I've received was "you're really good at talking about the patriarchy without talking about the patriarchy," on a post about dividing tasks in marriage. I didn't use terms like "emotional labor", "sexism", or, as noted, "patriarchy". This typically involves slightly longer phrasing, but it's not too bad; that post has "not everyone wants to be or will be in a male-female couple" instead of bringing in "heteronormative". Similarly, a version of the post I wrote about tickling kids that used "consent" or "rape culture" would have been worse.

There are two main ways people bounce off terms:

  • Affiliation. A piece mentioning "emotional labor" will lead readers to one set of inferences about the author; one mentioning "traditional marriage" will bring different inferences to mind. This can be useful if you are trying to strengthen the views of people who already agree with you, but not if you're trying to bring in new people.

  • Confusion. Your audience may not know what your terms mean, or, worse, may think they mean something different than you do. In discussions with your friends a broad understanding of "racist" may be implicit, but if you use the term to describe credit scoring many readers will take it as a claim that the system was maliciously and intentionally designed to disadvantage people on the basis of their race, and perhaps that credit scores explicitly consider an applicant's race.

There are some downsides to this approach: it can make it harder to find your piece through searching and it can feel somewhat detached from the broader conversation on the issue. It's probably not for everyone, but it's a pragmatic approach I've found works well.

Comment via: facebook

53

6 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:15 AM
New Comment

There are advantages to this style of writing even when the general term isn't contentious.

These kinds of concrete descriptions encourage readers to look at the world and see what's there, rather than engaging primarily with you and your concepts.

This can be good for people who know less about the topic, since looking at the world has fewer prerequisites. And it can be good for people who know more about the topic, since they can gain texture and depth by looking at new examples.

Though with non-contentious topics it's easier to add a general term at the end as a label to remember, or to tie the post into a larger conversation, without overshadowing the rest of the post.

I agree, and I would extend the advice to all the expressions which are short, fashionable, and somewhat opaque.

In Politics and the English Language, Orwell offered further arguments for avoiding ready-made phrases.

I agree with the overarching sentiment of this post, especially as a tool for making one's writing more inviting to "new people," as it were. I do disagree with the avoidance of the word consent specifically. For one thing, I do remember reading the Tickling post and feeling like it was "somewhat detached from the broader conversation," but I also feel like normalizing using consent to refer to mundane, non-sexual, non-violent situations is a good thing. I suppose it's a personal opinion whether this expansion of the usage of consent is a good thing or not, but I feel like it's a bit less politicized compared to all of your other examples that it's worth considering on its own. 

normalizing using 'consent' to refer to mundane, non-sexual, non-violent situations

The term is already used outside of sexual/violent situations, especially in law and medicine. The way the term is used, however, differs substantially by context, and in several contexts there are charged disagreements over where lines should be. The post I referenced was specifically about how to handle mixed signals, which is one of those areas of controversy.

Another approach is to try to put your ideas into words that others can understand. Bring in descriptive alternatives to your specialized terminology. 

In a hypothetical conversation about "dangerous ideologies", you might say: "Are we talking about homophobia?" If the answer is yes, then you know you can talk about fundamentalism, doctrinal interpretation, and tribal heuristics -- ideas that can be explained using metaphors everyone understands. 

From there you can begin to explain how these uniquely interact with homophobia to create a dangerous ideology, and why criticism isn't working. In a case like this you might not need to do much work. You can take the general ideas of your most recent writing and transform them into more accessible language for the audience you're trying to reach. 

Someone arguing against same-sex marriage because of religious objections may actually be fixable with a few  conversations, and if your concern was painting the movement as creepy or aggressive this might actually advance your cause more than attempts to directly change their minds with data. 

Still, all this takes more time and you have to be sure you are addressing the actual problem. 

You could rephrase a conspiracy theory into more neutral language and patiently correcting adherents until it makes sense, or you could spend days putting together an emotional appeal to take the place of misinformation. 

The former may work, but it's not a good use of time if the only people reading it are already lost. 

"There are no government attempts to control how many children you have. If you have more than two kids and aren't rich you're an idiot." Here, I've replaced "Malthusian ideology" with something understandable, and defined my terminology so it will slot into conversation easier. 

This will help people read what you say and understand your perspective, but it won't guarantee success. This may not be enough to convince someone already emotionally invested in their position. Nonetheless, I will give it a try.