Oct. 26th, 2009

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
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.


tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

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