Social Justice Jargon

I am amazed at the degree of linguistic inaccessibility in social justice spaces. Someone who isn’t already deeply involved not only in social justice, but the exact sub-culture of a particular blog or forum will have no way to meaningfully understand what is being said in many of these spaces. I guess that’s okay if we just want to talk to each other, but if the ignorant (that is, doesn’t know any better rather than chooses to act in a bad way) person in your life won’t understand your word choice or jargon, your words aren’t doing much outside of the group of people that share your language.

And most people don’t share your language.

Some examples of words or phrases I’m talking about:

  • Because reasons
  • AMAB
  • allistic
  • kyriarchy

Don’t know all of them? “Because reasons” is shorthand for “There are reasons for this, good or bad, but I don’t want to discuss them because whatever they are they aren’t relevant to this topic.”  I think. It seems to be used different ways by different people. A good alternative would be to actually say what you mean, like “I have reasons for this, but I don’t want to get into them here because I don’t believe they are relevant” or “She claims to have reasons, but I don’t know if they are bullshit or not” depending on how you use this.

AMAB? Assigned male at birth. I’m still not sure why this is as used as it is in social justice spaces, and I could write about some problems with it’s common uses – it can be really ugly (and not too far off from Janice Raymond, although I suspect most of the people using this term have never heard of Janice and her idea of privileged transwomen infiltrating and destroying women’s spaces because they grew up as men).

Allistic? This means non-autistic. Everyone understands what non-autistic means. A handful of people on the internet understands what allistic means.

Kyriarchy? This talks about all systems that are dominated/controlled by a group of people and where another group of people has a disadvantage. But few know that.

Of course part of the problem with this is that I probably exposed my misunderstanding of these words – definitions are hard, and understanding is hard. That’s the second problem: besides for these words not being known, they serve as a way of hiding misunderstanding.

I remember the first time that I, an evangelical (albeit non-traditional) Christian, had a discussion with Mormon missionaries. It became very clear quickly that we had many different ideas on some core beliefs regarding things like the trinity, resurrection, redemption, and heaven.Yet, we used the same words, just different definitions. So I could ask, “Do you believe in the trinity?” and the missionary would say, “Yes.” Yet we didn’t believe the same thing when we actually try to define what each of us believes – and the definition is very important to both my faith and the Mormon missionary’s faith. We could spend hours talking to each other, using this jargon, and never realize what we did and didn’t agree about, unless we defined our terms.

It’s kind of like someone saying, “I’m not racist.” Their definition of racist may or may not be as inclusive as someone else’s definition. They may say, “I’m not racist” and then say “But blacks just aren’t as intelligent as whites.” Their definition of racism would differ greatly from mine, which holds that blacks and whites have the same range of intelligence, and that not accepting this is one element of a racist.

But the biggest problem, in my eyes, is that this jargon turns social justice groups/blogs/spaces/forums into places that are hard for decent people to become part of, unless they are already in the group. It’s a form of exclusion and determining who belongs. Back to my evangelical vs. Mormon experiences, there are words and phrases that each group uses that reflect our culture and are not shared. I can spot, in less than 5 minutes, if someone goes to an evangelical church frequently. I’m sure the Mormons can do the same. A lot of how I can tell is based on language usage and how they use precise words that don’t necessarily get perceived the same way outside of the church community.

In fact, this cultural unawareness of Christians is a reason why many criticisms of Christians are ignored by Christians – the people criticizing don’t understand the language and thus assume it means something it doesn’t. A great example is when a Catholic official makes a public statement that says, “We need to welcome all people, including people with same-sex attraction, into our midst.” To a non-Catholic, that might sound like, “OH! Finally, the Catholics are going to let gays in!”  To a Catholic Bishop, it means, “How can we teach them they are wrong unless they come to our church? Of course we want them to come!” (key buzzwords: “welcome” doesn’t necessarily mean “we want these people in all parts of our church”; “same-sex attraction” means “We don’t recognize people are gay or lesbian, they just struggle with attraction to the same sex”)

So, this language can form a wall of separation between “us” and “them”. It’s not intended to do that (usually). But it becomes that.

There is another problem: linguistic accessibility. Yes, that’s an ironic use of jargon. Not everyone can access the right word that means exactly the shade of gray that a given piece of jargon means. Not everyone can remember all the jargon or wrap their heads around all these new terms. It’s nothing to do with intelligence, but rather simply with language ability. Some people are incredibly gifted and can adopt the jargon effortlessly and easily. Others cannot, but still have plenty of good things to contribute to you or learn from you.

So the next time you think you should use all this cool new language you learned, ask yourself, “Who am I talking to?” If you’re talking to other people who know these words and share your definitions, it’s absolutely appropriate. But if you think you might be talking to people who don’t understand your definitions, or if you want to include people that may not have the linguistic skills to decode the jargon (and in this aspect, it is an accessibility concern), think about at least defining your terms, or, better yet, trying to find a short, but obvious way of conveying the concept the jargon represents.

I’m certainly not an expert on how to do this – I too find myself using jargon or otherwise writing inaccessible text. And I’m missing out on valuable discussion because of it. Learning to communicately clearly is a process, and I’ve only started that process.

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2 Responses to Social Justice Jargon

  1. Thanks for this discussion – I very much agree with you about this topic, and wanted to add one thing about social justice jargon…

    Not only do the definitions and usage of many terms in social justice groups have a very steep learning curve, I have seen it used to basically treat very decent people as horrible. “What do you mean you don’t know the correct term for AMAB?! You must be a horrible horrible person, and should never speak with us ever again”. <- that of course, is a fairly ridiculous example, but I see things like this *all the time* in social justice groups – it's a way for the members of the group to feel "holier than thou" when dealing with "other people", and makes a great excuse to bully.

    An example from my life (then I promise I'll stop this comment) is the use of the phrase "you guys". I spent a lot of time as a young undergrad with the LGBT community at my university, and they decided that "you guys" was a BAD PHRASE, because it wasn't inclusive. Cards were made up explaining why "you guys" was wrong, and we were all supposed to hand them to everyone in our classes and talk to our professors, and anyone who didn't fix their speech was to be considered a bad person and vilified. I agree, on principle, that it does, linguistically at least, exclude the women in the room, but the alternative, "y'all", wasn't something I could easily adapt into my speech for a number of personal reasons (not the least of which is that my language acquisition and abilities are echolalic, and retraining a speech pattern isn't something that happens quickly or easily). I bet you can see where this is going… Despite a concerted effort to educate myself on this (and many other issues), and change my linguistic patterns (which, predictably, failed), the group decided that I was just too horrible of a person, and started treating me badly and eventually I left the community, because I couldn't function within it. This wasn't the only reason for my parting with the community, but it played a fairly substantial role.

    I see this sort of issue *all the time* in social justice groups, online or in person. And I think it is extremely limiting and really not very helpful at all.

  2. davidfoxfire says:

    Whenever someone use a term that I have to Goggle to get the definition from, and the result isn’t in Webster’s Unabridge, I immediaely ninja vanish from the thread, I have no time to deal with an SJW who uses terms that even I won’t use.