tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
[personal profile] tim
There's this meme that surfaces now and then that says it's elitist for people in a particular political movement to use vocabulary that goes beyond a "USA Today" sort of level, or to refer to literature... well, I guess to literature. Period.

I've seen the meme show up in the context of feminism, where rich, white women with graduate-level education frequently argue (on the Internet, using expensive computers and broadband connections) that to be more accessible to poor women of color, feminists ought to put down their book larnin' and (I guess) limit themselves to comic strips whose dialogue features words of no more than two syllables.

More recently, it came to my attention that some people dislike the words "cissexual" (describing people whose internal sense of what sex they are matches their external body -- if you've never thought about it, you probably are it) and "cisgender" (describing people whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth -- ditto) because the words originated from a chemistry pun about the prefixes "trans-" and "cis-". Since education is a privilege, by which we mean formal schooling because that's (apparently) the only kind of education, social movements ought not to use words whose meanings aren't obvious -- I guess?

I would perhaps take this kind of argument more seriously if it ever came from a non-privileged person. I have never actually heard anyone complain that they would get involved in a particular movement if only they stopped using big words that were so hard to understand. I have heard plenty of people express concern that *other* (that is, poorer and less white) people might be dissuaded from a movement because of the presence of language or allusions that would be too difficult for such people.

Perhaps it's easy for people who've led comfortable lives to underestimate the amount of initiative and ingenuity it takes to survive as a poor person. I would actually rather write a master's thesis in most humanities or science fields than apply for public benefits, in terms of sheer logistical effort involved. I assume it's also easy for someone who has had the privilege of always seeing their own education as someone else's job to not realize the many ways in which it's possible to educate yourself, sans money, much social support, or other external resources. (You probably have more years of formal schooling under your belt than I do, by the way.)

In fact, the only people who I have ever heard complaining about how oppressive it was for someone else to expect them to have to learn something were privileged white students at the frou-frou college I attended. Sometimes it seems to me like formal schooling and intellectual curiosity are actually negatively correlated.

Going back to the specific example of "cisgender", the reasons for most words' origins are not usually necessary in other to use the words. "Cis" happens to be the Latin prefix for "on this side of", and the mental leap that the coiner of "cisgender" and "cissexual" made from chemists' usage of the prefixes "trans-" and "cis-" is rather immaterial to understanding what the words mean. In general, I don't hear a lot of complaints that psychologists should all be calling themselves "head doctors" because not all people with mental illness know the tale of Cupid and Psyche, or that public transportation is hard to use because "bus" is an abbreviation for "omnibus" and not everyone knows the Latin plural for "all". It's true that "cisgender" is a word that has been in use for much less time than "psychologist" or "bus", but words enter the language through repeated use, not through repeated explanation.

A lot of the work involved in trans inclusion has to do with reframing and with challenging definitions; language does distort reality in a way that's concretely oppressive when someone is unwittingly using a different definitions of "man" (or "woman") than the usual ones when it's convenient to deny that someone is one. So to change reality, you have to change language. Part of that involves using words people may not understand. If everyone's existing vocabulary was adequate, there wouldn't be any work to do.

And that work isn't easy. But the hard part is getting people to challenge their fundamental assumptions; introducing new words is easy. Advertisers do it all the time. You don't do ~underprivileged people~ any favors by claiming you know what's easy or hard for them; if you really ever thought about what life is like for people with less privileged than you, you wouldn't think that looking up a word was a significant barrier to advocating for your own rights.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 08:22 am (UTC)
ext_36143: (Default)
From: [identity profile] badasstronaut.livejournal.com
I remember when it used to be the case at feminist things/events I went to that lots of community based feminist activists would complain that academic feminism was all pointless navel gazing, and excluded women outside the academic context with dense language (post structuralist feminist writing can be pretty hard going, sometimes people use their language to make themselves look better). They had a point. But I think there's room for both of those kinds of feminist work, and there's a real need for there to be communication and patience on the borders, rather than defensiveness and accusations in both directions.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 12:08 pm (UTC)
naath: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naath
I think the dense-hard-to-read-ness is not just connected to the word choices but also to the structure of the arguments presented. I know that I tend to find it hard to fight through things that read like theses in English Literature - simply because I'm used to reading arguments written by scientists rather than arguments written by non-scientists. AIUI Americans force their university students to take non-science courses (shocking!) so presumably no American with my level of education would ever have this problem.

But really, I figure that it's people's business to conduct their study of things in a way which pleases them. I try to avoid being annoying at people who phrase their arguments in (to me) weird ways. Obviously this way of communicating works for a lot of people, trying to get them to change would be futile.

[Although life would be easier if more humanities types could admit that some people find their subjects *hard* (because everyone knows "math is hard" of course, but people seem fond of denying that Literature might be hard to *grasp* (rather than something everyone can do if only they worked at it)).]

I don't have any irritation with new words, new words are a fact of life really. People who whinge about how "obscure" they are are largely missing the point - new words are obviously obscure, but if we use them enough they'll become commonplace.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 12:29 pm (UTC)
ext_36143: (Default)
From: [identity profile] badasstronaut.livejournal.com
I guess anything's hard if you miss out whatever incremental steps you need to lay the foundations for the harder bits.

I'm in humanities, and I like new words. I feel disappointed when students resist cite vocabulary as an unfair barrier to study in my field because, you know, they could just learn the words, and I'd have thought that's partly what they're there for. But not everyone thinks so.

I guess what gets people emotional about this is the difference in vocabulary might represent a power imbalance. If you have language (or forms of argument or whatever) that's unfamiliar to someone (especially if it's language that's supposed to be describing whoever it's unfamiliar to - eg academic feminist language about women), then maybe it looks like more like you're trying to wave your big power stick at them rather than simply trying to communicate. So the challenge is to share the lexicon in a way that makes it theirs as well as yours.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 12:52 pm (UTC)
naath: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naath
If the words are used in otherwise easy sentences it's pretty easy to pick up what they mean. Humans are really really good at that usually. But sometimes it's harder - like if you've got a slightly different-to-usual definition of a word; there's nothing *wrong* with that (mathematical uses of words like "set" and "group" come to mind), but it can be confusing to people outside your field when you say something that they think they understand (because the sentence looks like "normal" English), but actually they didn't understand what you meant at all because the key words have specialised definitions.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 02:09 pm (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
The danger of specialised definitions of ordinary words is equivocation - accidental or deliberate switching between meanings that slips poor arguments past the radar. In particular (I can't think of examples at the moment) there's the trick of making a statement, which when read using plain-English meanings of words, has a lot of rhetorical impact, and when read using the specialised definitions, is well-supported by an argument that you've made. I think this is a much bigger danger in activism than in maths.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 02:29 pm (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
Also, of course, there's the danger that you can be perceived as doing this even when your intentions are entirely honest...

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 04:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] madcaptenor.livejournal.com
Is this actually an issue in math? Are mathematicians actually going around saying things that other people think they understand, but actually don't because of words like set, group, ring, field, category, etc.? As a mathematician I don't see this, but it's possible that I just don't realize that normal people don't understand me.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 04:12 pm (UTC)
naath: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naath
No, but mathematicians sometimes say such things to non-mathematicians and confuse people thereby. Or get confused by non-mathematicians casual use of such words.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 04:53 pm (UTC)
etb: (dynamitage)
From: [personal profile] etb
It's hard for me to believe that a mathematician would really not understand a non-mathematician using "group" or "category" or "field" with their non-mathematical meanings, when the same mathematician must routinely use those words with non-mathematical meanings.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 05:04 pm (UTC)
naath: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naath
Maybe they were being Deliberately Dense; it's not a common problem.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 05:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] madcaptenor.livejournal.com
I think that you meant it's not an uncommon problem.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 12:31 pm (UTC)
ext_36143: (Default)
From: [identity profile] badasstronaut.livejournal.com
BTW - literature is too hard for me.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 04:42 pm (UTC)
etb: entailment of BBQ under assumption OMG in the WTF system (logic)
From: [personal profile] etb
because the words originated from a chemistry pun about the prefixes "trans-" and "cis-"

I don't see how it's a pun to use established prefixes. "Cis" isn't nearly as common as "trans" (transcontinental, Transjordan, etc.), but it's not totally unknown outside chemistry. There's cislunar, which is the first cis-word I remember seeing, in The Lathe of Heaven—where it was probably chosen in part because most readers wouldn't know what it meant. I'm not saying everyone knows cis-, but it's more than a pun.

(The Oxford American mentions cisatlantic, cislunar, cisalpine, and cis-Elizabethan.)

Assuming it were just a chemistry pun, though, is this where I'm supposed to resent the privilege of people who actually studied chemistry at some point? How do I work this thing?

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 04:55 pm (UTC)
adularia: Photo of me, in black and white, with my glasses tilted. (Default)
From: [personal profile] adularia
The only person I know to have taken offense at cis has a chemistry degree and likes to throw public shitfits about the prefix's improper and slightly tongue-in-cheek appropriation. Personally I think they just dislike the existence of a term for "cisgender" and they're trying to clothe their dislike in an effort to invalidate it. Good luck with that.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 05:29 pm (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
Grrr. Bloody chemists. They think they own the language. Lots of them have a stupid chip on their shoulder about "organic", how they think any (well, there's only one that actually annoys them) sense of the word that doesn't (roughly) equate to "contains carbon" is invalid. See also their sporadic dislike of other people using the word "chemical" in the sense of "something made in a chemical plant which was designed by a chemical engineer and is owned by a chemical company which is a part of the chemical industry, and which may be regulated by a chemical safety officer".

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 07:28 pm (UTC)
ewx: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ewx

I don't recall having any difficulty figuring out “cisgendered” from context to be an antonym of “transgendered” despite not know the chemistry terminology. But then the context would have started out as TG; dropping it into a conversation without some context to provide a hint might well be expected to produce occasional bafflement.

I guess people who wear gender-appropriate clothing are cisvestites.

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