Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A plea to the Left: ditch the pompous language!

The Left's most important challenge: attracting activists and MPs that don't stem from the inner circle of academia, research and "think tanks".

One thing at the back of my mind has been bugging me for a while.

It was brought back to the fore by a paper called Culture and Society, Then and Now that I recently attempted to read/decipher. Published not long ago in the New Left Review journal, it was written by a critical theorist called Francis Mulhern.

In itself the paper contains a number of interesting thoughts and analyses from a leftist perspective. One, for instance, is Mulhern's critique of 'multiculturalism' as a sort of fig leaf for the liberal establishment to deflect from fundamental questions about class and inequality. This is, however, a summary. A very crude summary of an incredibly complex piece.

Which begs the question: the revolting, inaccessible, superelitist way so many people on the Left insist on writing/speaking, effectively putting off a massive pool of people with a potential to find both hope and political inspiration in certain ideas.

I apologise for picking on Mulhern's piece, but it's the perfect example of the tons of stuff on the Left written in the arsiest, most arcane, incomprehensible, "ivory tower" sort of fashion.

Am I being populistic and pig ignorant and tabloid-esque? Ok then, you tell me: why else would you pepper your article/analysis/paper with spectacularly convoluted paragraphs right from the off? To what ends? What possible benefit is there aside from displaying narcissistic, self-loving, self-referential tendencies that are so reminiscent of my old University lecturers? What purpose does it serve but to remain a futile exercise for the few?

Laying down your concepts properly and avoiding lazy language doesn't mean you have to
test the readers' patience as they go through each paragraph six times trying to make sense of what they're reading. That is, if they don't pack it in within a minute.

Last week, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme by David Runciman about the Left's incapacity to speak to ordinary people. Referring to the US in particular, Runciman explained that this is why the Right often wins the argument - in recent decades, "right-wing politics has become a vehicle for channelling [...] popular anger against intellectual snobs".

According to author Thomas Frank, many voters who are repulsed by the patronising liberal language believe that, by voting Right, they're going "to strike a blow against elitism". Of course though, the end result is "like a French Revolution in reverse in which the workers come pouring down the street screaming more power to the aristocracy". Which is why ridiculously pompous posturing needs to be ditched asap.

This is a challenge that the Left is losing and -at least in part- it explains why Labour and the Left (in Britain as well as elsewhere) are increasingly failing to attract activists and, in turn, MPs that don't stem from middle class professionals and the shrinking inner circle of academia, research and "think tanks".

Just think about it: there are precious few current Labour MPs of working or even low/middle class background. More worringly, none of them is a spring chicken anymore.

6 comments:

asquith said...

I know what you mean. When I don't quite get something & have to go back over it I'll usually curse myself for stupidity though.

It seems to me that there are some people who mistake complexity for profundity, & think being totally incomprehensible proves how clever they are & how anyone who doesn't understand them i beneath them. They are, for example, skewered in "Why Truth Matters", got their comeuppance with the Sokal hoax, & so on.

But then you've got things that are long & hard to understand because they need to be. The posts on Ministry Of Truth, for exampl, I will rad through, more than once if need be, because they reward the attention paid to them.

I've found myself not always clicking on follow-up reports, full texts, & what have you & I hate myself for it. I am terrified, seriously, of my powers fading because I read a load & if I lose the ability to take it all in I've had it.

You see what I mean, don't you? Distinguish the long & pointlessly drawn out from the long & meaty. I think the posts at Heresy Corner, for example, are excellent in their concision but some writing by other authors needs to be longer. Some witers could make it a bit easier on the eye but others have become as "popular" as they can without dumbing down beyond redemption.

As for this "anti-elitism". Well, it's hard to see what Bill Kristol, Jonah Goldberg, George W. Bush, the majority of right-ing bloggers etc. are if not members of an elite. I am intrigued by the right-wing narrative. I think it has its genesis in thoughts along these lines which are sort of respectable:

"These people, graduates of elite universities, have become so used to thinking they're clever that they have taken it upon themselves to run society, regardless of what your wishes may be, which in fact ALWAYS has the effect of increasing state power over individuals, & actually doesn't work well at all in terms of economic efficiency & what have you, let alone anything else.

The equality & diversity agenda runs along similar lines & is not, fundamntally, designed to promote equality before the law but tocarve out (etc. etc)"

A case could be made for that, though of course they'd have to explain what Hayek, Friedman, Greenspan before the credit crunch, the IMF higher-ups, etc. etc. are if not right-wing intellectuals trying to impose their own vision on society regardless of what people may want.

But the "anti-elitism" which we can vaguely understand so often becomes know-nothingism, pride in one's own ignorance, scorn for learning because it's bad in & of itself, a demand that their worlds be kept small, predictable & "safe".

The failure to distinguish scientists (flawed & self-interested beings) from science (which at least theoretically is a disinterested pursuit of truth) is another thing worth considering.

Yeah, my humblest apologies for dropping all this on you but I've been thinking about the two themes, the "elitism"/"anti-elitism" & the "detailed anlysis"/"incomprehensible shite" for a bit.

PS-
Sorry for the random missing letters too, my kyboard doesn't fully work & I've spent long enough typing not to bother with fixing it now :)

claude said...

No need to apologise. You raise some really interesting points. And, for one thing, I often feel thick too when placed in front of self-wanking academic pieces.

"As for this "anti-elitism". Well, it's hard to see what Bill Kristol, Jonah Goldberg, George W. Bush, the majority of right-wing bloggers etc. are if not members of an elite."

Exactly. This is the paradox. The Republicans in the US are the most elitist privileged defenders of the status quo. Yet the way they manage to articulate their crap somehow strikes a chord with lots of low-paid people. Or, better, with their guts. Which is frustrating, for want of a better word.

You say:

"But then you've got things that are long & hard to understand because they need to be."

This is where we disagree. The amount of times I've come across stuff thinking that an incredibly strong point was lost through unnecessarily warped language.

Or I can think of the tons of navel-gazing 'debates' a-la Fabian society...obviously the talk of every pub up and down the country. Not.

"
But the "anti-elitism" which we can vaguely understand so often becomes know-nothingism, pride in one's own ignorance, scorn for learning because it's bad in & of itself, a demand that their worlds be kept small, predictable & "safe"
".

Here you have a point. And Britain's tabloids spring to mind.

But surely the Left can find a way to speak to and for working people again without bowing down to know nothingism.

The final bit of what I wrote is evidence of the current, dismal direction.

How many Labour or LibDem MPs of working class extraction can you think of as opposed to those reared by "think tanks" and research centres?

I'm sure there's a few more, but I could think of just three of working class background: Alan Johnson, Peter Kilfoyle and John Prescott. They're respectively 60, 64 and 72.

Forget the manufacturing workers, where are the new working classes? The call centre workers, the shop assistants, the catering staff, the cleaners, the nurses, the teachers? Not one...

That, to me, is the obvious evidence that something is deeply wrong with the Left.

socialist sam said...

Has Nick Cohen become your idol or something?

Stan Moss said...

Why, has Nick Cohen ever said anything about pompus language? Now that would be some soul searching on his part!

Rob said...

Are academic texts the problem, though? It has rarely been the job of academics to speak directly to the public. Gramsci knew this, as did Hayek (who explained that the job of popularising academic ideas falls to "second-hand dealers in ideas".

The failure is not on the part of the academics and their language (although this does not necessarily mean that their language is good). Ultimately, there is a question about whether we think it's a good idea to have lots of theory about social matters. If we think it's a good idea, we want academics writing lengthy tracts on multiculturalism (or what-have-you) and this will necessitate the development of a specific vocabulary as it does in any other scientific field. Putting it in 'plainer' language won't work. Alternatively, we could abandon much of the theorising, which seems to be what the right has done. The middle path would be for people (bloggers?) to try to explain the works of the academics and why they matter.

My point is that you can't attack the academics for writing complex stuff. You can attack them for being a complete waste of time, or you can support them and try to explain their findings.

Also, the notion that 'the left' has failed utterly to communicate anything sits oddly with the fact that we've had an unprecedented 13 years of Labour government, frequently elected with massive majorities. Perhaps the left's problem isn't in communications and winning power, but in having good ideas about what to do with it?

claude said...

Rob:
"You can attack them for being a complete waste of time".

Not always (that would be unfair). But, yes, very often.

"If we think it's a good idea, we want academics writing lengthy tracts on multiculturalism (or what-have-you) and this will necessitate the development of a specific vocabulary as it does in any other scientific field".

Hang on a moment. I think you're mixing two issues here.

The need for some specific vocabulary does not mean that they should write using warped language, interminable paragraphs and words recognised by 0.1% of the entire population.

Academic texts outside social sciences are by no means easy, but their difficulty is almost exclusively related to specific terminology.
Too often, instead, political/social theorists simply love to write in masturbatory (narcissistic) fashion.

"Putting it in 'plainer' language won't work"

Why, for goodness's sake? Give me one reason, please.

"we've had an unprecedented 13 years of Labour government, frequently elected with massive majorities".

Fine, you could rest on laurels.

Or you could consider a few facts:
1) Labour membership. It's literally nosediving.
In 2008 it was almost a quarter of what it was in 1997: from 405,000 to 176,000. The current membership is Labour´s lowest ever.
Tory membership is down too, but nowhere neear Labour´s collapse.
If that isn't a failure then I don't know what is.

2) Rising apathy (electoral turnout being only a symptom. Another could be the decline in union membership).

3) You can also look at their MPs. The few that are not from academia, research centres, think tanks were recruited decades ago. New generation MPs from working/low middle class backgrounds are nowhere to be seen.

4) Or you could also look at how right-wing tabloids have influenced/dictated your beloved "unprecedented 13 years of Labour government", both in terms of rhetoric and action and despite Labour's massive majorities.