DEMOCRACY and its FUTURES: Moving away from Jargon and Excessive Theoretical Baggage, by Ryan Beaton

Photo by Kévin Langlais on Unsplash

Graduate students in Victoria, Canada, debate the approach to readings on “democracy from below”

By Ryan Beaton, Trudeau Scholar, Faculty of Law at the University of Victoria

While the preparations for a gathering of a scholarly discussion on the Futures of Democracy in Victoria BC take place, a pre-seminar organized by graduate students discusses a series of readings by Fonna Forman and Teddy Cruz, Robin Celikates, Antje Wiener, and Peyman Vahabzadeh, gathered loosely under the heading of “democracy from below”. While we took a dive into the substantive content of those pieces, particularly by Celikates, I won’t rehearse that aspect of our conversation here. What stuck with me from our group discussion is a commitment to two rather “procedural” points, using that term loosely and with the understanding of course that this is simply my subjective recollection of our discussion, always subject to revision and clarification by other members of our group.

First, a number of us expressed a desire to move away from jargon, esoteric references, orother specialist language, to the extent we can manage it. It’s important to move away from jargon both to ease the discussion across disciplines and also (here I may speak only for myself) because jargon is our distinctive mode of defensiveness as academics, signaling an expertise that is often hard-earned but that too often also distances us from the phenomena we are meant to be illuminating and from non-specialist discussions of them.

Second, picking up where the above point left off, we also seemed to share a common desire to ground our discussions squarely in the phenomena under discussion (for instance, the illegal crossing of borders as an act of civil disobedience, or the contestation of fisheries regulations and related international law). One of our key aims, as I understand it, is to avoid placing excessive theoretical baggage between ourselves and the phenomena we are discussing, so as to avoid also falling into the trap of cherry-picking the phenomena for confirmation of our preferred theoretical angles.

By a happy coincidence, a friend just yesterday forwarded me a lecture by Edward Said in which he captures the above points most eloquently. Below is an extract, followed by a link to the full lecture for those who are interested:

[In the academy,] there’s always the danger of specialization, and of what has come to be called professionalization. That is to say, I think that the tendency in the academy to focus upon membership in a guild tends, therefore, to constrict and limit the critical awareness of the scholar. And this kind of restriction is manifest in a number of things. For example, the use of jargon, specialized language that nobody else can understand. One of my early works — well, perhaps not that early; but it was written, or published seventeen or eighteen years ago — was a book called Orientalism, which took its main subject from the way in which a field, as all fields are, is constituted by its language; but that the language itself becomes further and further removed from the experiences and the realities of the subject, in this case the orient, about which the language was supposed to turn.

About the author: Ryan Beaton is currently pursuing a PhD in Law at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. His research focuses on the evolving conceptions of Aboriginal title and Crown sovereignty in Canadian case law. Ryan also works as a lawyer at Juristes Power in Vancouver. He works in areas of Aboriginal law, constitutional law, and administrative law. In 2014-2015, Ryan clerked for Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin at the Supreme Court of Canada, prior to which he clerked at the Court of Appeal for Ontario. He received his JD from Harvard Law School in 2013. Ryan has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Toronto (2011) and a MSc in Mathematics from McGill University (2005). He is from the greater Montreal area, now living in Victoria. He practices law in English and French. He is also fluent in German, and conversant in Spanish and Marathi.

3 replies
  1. Stewart Murray
    Stewart Murray says:

    I think this actually a critically important discussion to be having right now as a means to combat right-wing politics and the rise of nationalist extremism. As the author puts it “jargon and theoretical baggage” constitute a barrier not just for interdisciplinary discussions but for the public to engage with these discussions, with the main issue being the public/academic engagement. This is because the evidence seems to suggest that bottom-up shifts in public perception are how societal norms are changed and established. For example, making gender pronoun use a matter of law has an effect for some of galvanizing their resolve to avoid using this kind of language; while conversely general shifts in how society at large views same-sex relationships has resulted in widespread support within secular nations for same-sex marriage. So, in short, reducing the complexity of language is important because it is necessary in allowing us to have more productive discussions to bring about the kind of broad societal changes that we need to fight right-wing extremism.

  2. Rene Allain
    Rene Allain says:

    There is an interesting link between three blog posts: “From Illegal to irregular: Changing the public image of refugees”, “Canada’s border and Migration policies in comparative perspective” and “Futures of Democracy and the role of academia: Moving away from jargon and excessive theoretical baggage”.

    Franziska Fisher calls for “methodologies and tools to disrupt and unlearn, what has been produced out of a place of fear, rather than compassion, or even merely a fact-based understanding of the situation.” in regards to the misperception regarding migrants and refugees in Canada and Europe. Similarly, Jennifer Lorentz details the role that small changes in vocabulary, when discussing policy issues, can have to help reframe the issue (for better or worse). Changing the word illegal to irregular can change the perception that the public has on individuals from abroad and their impact on the community. These two posts fall in line with what Ryan Beaton writes – the need to move away from technical jargon towards accessible language that can be understood by all “to ease the discussion across disciplines”.

    I argue that these three posts present a policy solution to the systemic issue facing western democracies; misinformation and populist rhetoric. Often populist leaders will use simple, colloquial jargon while the ‘technocratic elites’ they criticize and demonize are left discussing policy options using incomprehensible jargon. One tool to “disrupt and unlearn” (Fisher) the anti-immigrant rhetoric would be to produce ‘jargon-free’ literature and fact-based media campaigns that are easy to understand. Producing knowledge that is digestible for the mass public and easily picked up by media outlets can be an effective way to ‘throw sand’ in the mechanisms of policy-making and populist rhetoric. Clearly, appealing to the masses through common language is an effective tool that is used by populist leaders but can also be used to the advantage of creating an environment where pro-immigrant and pro-refugee policy options are welcomed by the people.

    In an era of ‘click-bait’ and fake news, I believe that academics, civil society, politicians and media outlets must work together to create fact-based campaigns that counteract the negative, fear-based rhetoric that populists thrive on. Providing an informative and attractive counter-narrative in the same (technical jargon free) vernacular that populists use, on media platforms that everyone uses is an important step in that direction.

  3. Ryan Beaton
    Ryan Beaton says:

    I appreciate the replies of both Stewart Murray and René Allain, and note that they identify our major challenges in similar terms: “right-wing politics and the rise of nationalist extremism” (Stewart) and “misinformation and populist rhetoric” (René). I also think both underscore a crucial connection between language and affect. Populist and extremist rhetoric, by definition, are designed to engage with peoples’ affects, most commonly negative affects of fear, resentment, insecurity. Academics and “technocratic elites” typically hesitate or flat-out disdain to engage the affects so directly in their public interventions. This is understandable to the extent they wish to communicate specific points or research with a degree of expertise and objectivity. Unfortunately, the proliferation of technical jargon is often used defensively to protect that stance of expertise, whether consciously or simply as a habit of professionalization, as Said suggests. Jargon used in this way, particularly on issues of public interest like trade agreements and immigration, tends to feed populist resentment and ridicule of elites.

    In this respect, I think Franziska Fisher is absolutely right to call for “methodologies and tools to disrupt and unlearn, what has been produced out of a place of fear, rather than compassion, or even merely a fact-based understanding of the situation.” As academics studying issues of public interest, we need to reflect on the affective dimension of these issues, and how our work engages this dimension. Chantal Mouffe was one of our invited speakers at the Democracy and Its Futures conference at UVic last month. She has written extensively on the need for the left to pay more attention to the affective dimension of politics in order to provide an alternative to rising right-wing populism. She offered us timely and important reminders of this fact, whether or not we agree with the details of her analyses.

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