Monday, 12 March 2018

Plain Speaking and "Academic" Language

A small cactus with googly eyes, "reading" a dictionary.
Liberal Quaker communities aren't usually terribly representative of the communities in which they are situated. Here in Britain, we tend to be white, culturally middle class, English-speaking (particularly noted in Wales), and educated. There's lots of theories about why this is; I tend to subscribe to the idea that a non-representative community is more forbidding and less welcoming to those who do not already fit into it than those who immediately “fit in”. A black, Asian or other minority ethnic (the currently most acceptable term in this country, abbreviated to BAME) person, in a town that is ethnically diverse, will react the first time they go to a group based on what they see – just as a white person would, but with very different dynamics of social history behind it. If they see 40 people in a room, all white, they will feel that this group is not for them. It may be subconscious, and it may be counterbalanced by other factors (and we'd better hope it will be), but it will be there; none of us is “colour-blind”, however much we might have a misguided aspiration to be so. Similarly, when a person who is culturally working class finds themselves in a room full of middle class accents, when they come to a shared meal and find half the contributions based on couscous and quinoa, they feel that this is a group that is not for people like them.
I emphasise “educated” in this list because it is, in one important way, not like the others. It is something that each of us can potentially change about ourselves, and it is seen as a positive by even the most enlightened social egalitarian. It is not hard to argue that that is it is a good thing that we are mostly quite educated, provided that we include those who are educated by less formal means. We might believe that we are mostly educated because those who join our community who are less educated become more educated in part because of their exposure to Quakers and their living out of Quaker values.
If that were the case, then it would certainly be to the good. However, what we find – in my experience – is that those who come to our meetings as newcomers and stay to become part of our community are, overwhelmingly, largely already educated. As my regular readers will no doubt have gathered, I consider this a bad thing. Anything that leads to our community being so homogeneous at point of entry is a bad thing. We benefit from a richness of different experience, and a joiner or butcher brings to our community different experiences than the lawyer, doctor, teacher and accountant. We were once a Religious Society that encompassed merchants, artisans and farmers – yeomen and labourers – equally, with a small smattering of other parts of the emerging middle classes. Now we are mostly professional, degree educated, and middle class.
Let us put that to one side for a moment, and consider the tradition of plain speaking. Originally, this had many facets for the early Friends, including the idiosyncratic use of the English t-form of second person pronouns – thee and thou – despite the fact they were already disappearing from many dialects. This was part of the rejection of the very idea of social superiority and inferiority. They would not recognise it in custom and social ritual (such as “hat honour”, the subject of one of my favourite brief stories from early Quakers), and certainly would not recognise it in grammar. Thus, when speaking to an individual – or even to a group composed of individuals when referring to action each would take separately – they used the singular/familiar t-form, thee/thou, rather than the plural/respectful v-form, ye/you. This, in somewhat evolved1 form, is still often referred to as plain speaking by some American Quakers, but it has essentially fallen entirely out of use in Britain (barring dialectal forms – you will still hear thee and tha in parts of the north of England, for instance, and not only among Quakers). It is not, however, what I am talking about.
Plain speaking, at least to British Friends today, seems to me to have two main strands. One is related to honesty – to the testimony to truth, you might say – while the other is being straightforward with how things are said, often seen as related to the testimony to simplicity. One might also, however, see the latter element as related to the testimony to equality; unnecessarily complicating language makes it less accessible, requires that readers or listeners have a certain level (and type) of education. Use of jargon limits your audience to those who understand the relevant argot.
As I have demonstrated in the preceding paragraph, as in my of my other writing, I am not one who finds it easy to present language simply and accessibly. I do okay when I put my mind to it, but most of the time I don't put my mind to it. Thus, a lot of my writing, and my speaking, and sometimes even my spoken ministry in Meeting for Worship, uses a certain degree of specialised or academic language. I freely admit that, but I will leave off elaborating on that point for a moment.
There is an argument that I have across, from time to time, that widespread use of such language among Friends makes our texts, our community, and thus our practices, inaccessible to many. It might be specific learning difficulties, such as (to give only the most obvious example) dyslexia, that make complex writing and esoteric vocabulary an obstruction. It might simply be a lack of familiarity with such language – both with vocabulary, making it difficult to understand what is said and written, or simply a lack of experience dealing with a certain manner of speaking and writing. Those who have had a full and successful experience at university will have had opportunity to get used to such things. Similarly, those who grew up in a culturally middle class household are more likely to have been exposed to complex speech from a young age. Thus, those who are culturally working class, or not university educated, are more likely to be uncomfortable with such “academic” language, be it structure or vocabulary, or to struggle to understand it. Of course, this is not a tight correlation. I have known people from very much middle class backgrounds, who have been to university and even done reasonably well, who could not follow an intellectual conversation, and I have known those who have never had the benefit of university education and grew up in working class, thoroughly un-intellectual households, and who were nevertheless able to engage in dynamic, intellectual debate. I have also known working class households that were places where such discussion was common. We generalise when it is useful to do so, as it is here, but must not mistake such practical generalisation for a general rule.
In a sense, the generalisation might be seen as immaterial. There are some who are excluded by use of “advanced” language and vocabulary, and it is not a good thing to exclude anyone. Yet the correlation, however loose it might be, demonstrates that this is a bigger problem than the exclusion of some individuals. It becomes the exclusion, in large part, of whole categories of people – letting down these people by denying them access to our spiritual path, and letting down our community by denying us the benefit of their lived experience and the different ways light will shine through such different experience.
The answer seems simple. Apart from historical quotations, which should be adequately annotated to resolve the problem, we abandon all such “high level” language, all obscure vocabulary. You could restrict us to the N most commonly used words in English in the country in question, as in Randall Munroe's Thing Explainer, a book that explains complex (generally technological) things using only the 1000 most commonly used words in English (I assume American English). It's usually possible to explain most things, if you are roundabout enough. However, that doesn't actually always make it easy to understand. People will often know and understand more than you expect them to, once you set about trying to be understandable. Of course, when you don't try to be understandable, you will tend to assume, tacitly, that people understand more than it turns out they do. Looked at that way, it seems you can't win. No, that solution can only take us so far – and it doesn't turn out to be very far.
We also inherently deal with some very complicated concepts. We do not have a catechism that people are expected to learn and understand, no normative theology that we insist Quakers get their head around. The essentials, if such they can be considered, are quite simple: there is something of God (or what-you-will) in each of us, we can be guided by it, and we can apply practices in groups to better be guided by it. However, only the basics can be summarised that simply. The fact of our theological diversity requires the exchange of complex ideas if we are to benefit from it (rather than ignore it).
Must we then throw up our hands, and say “it cannot be done”? Must we choose, and either say “c'est la vie” to the exclusion of those who are not comfortable with academic/intellectual discourse, or decide it's not worth talking about our complex ideas and concepts?
No. The Spirit calls us to explore it, and also calls us to share it, and we can and will do both.
We are on a hiding to nothing if we simply try to simplify things enough that anyone can understand them. Things that are inherently complex cannot be simplified; if you try, you instead have a simplified version of the thing – concept, idea, principle – that you began with. That is a stepping stone, but people are prone to being satisfied with what they understand, and do not readily take the step to understand the more complex thing it is substituting for. People need to understand the simple things that lead to the more complex things, rather than simple things in place of complex things. It is a knotty problem.
There are two things required to resolve the problem. Neither of them are easy to most Quakers in Britain, in my experience. One is to take the time to explain things in as accessible a manner as practically appropriate, and not using complex language simply because that is what we are used to. Make things as simple or straightforward as they can be without actually losing any of their essence. It will take some of us – including myself, as I noted earlier – a considerable, concerted effort. We will have to think about our audience for each time we write or speak (even in conversation) and pitch it appropriately. It won't be easy, which is why I'm not doing it immediately with this blog. While I try to work out how it applies to me, how I differentiate writing for different audiences, what my audience really is, I will carry on largely as I have been – though I commit myself now to trying to keep this idea in mind.
Audience is important. If you are planning a course on theology, and you have made it clear the sort of level you will be working at, you can prepare materials based on the appropriate audience. If you are running a programme for enquirers, it will be different – and you will want to know more about the enquirers, or try to narrow the intended audience, before you can be confident as to what knowledge you can assume, and how comfortable the audience will be with different sorts and styles of discourse.
An audience at any one moment is static, and can be planned for, but the audience that is the Religious Society of Friends, or a single Meeting, is always changing. This bring me to the second thing required to resolve the problem. This will not simply be a challenge for individuals, but for all of us as a community. It comes back to education. Not that we should be ensuring that our members and attenders all have degree-level or equivalent academic experience; that would be counter-productive, and not everyone is suited to every style of learning.
Everyone (barring infrequent edge cases) can, however, learn almost any concept, or at least this is what my experience suggests to me. It simply requires the support for knowledge construction – also known as education. Indeed, Britain Yearly Meeting's Quaker faith & practice actually calls for Meetings to provide ongoing religious education, to people of all ages and at all stages of their Quaker journey.
What would this look like? I'm not sure, but I think we need to talk about it. I know that some claim that our (from a national perspective) Meetings for Learning satisfy this requirement, but I'm not sure they do. I think it's likely that we would, in fact, benefit from a much more systematic scheme. It would not require any sort of compulsion; we would simply, in each area or locality, make available a rolling programme of development. If it is well-designed – interesting, entertaining and compelling as well as informative and development-provoking – then people will choose to come.
Indeed, we may take a model, in terms of things that have worked well and not so well, from the Reading Quaker faith & practice programme that has been occupying some in our Yearly Meeting in recent years. This was done for a specific purpose, but it has certainly had the effect of providing religious education to those who have taken part.
In this way, we might ensure that, although we are mindful of our audience and do not complicate our discourse for no reason, we enable everyone in our community to better understand the concepts that we may which to talk or write about. We get people used to the idea of thoughtful discourse about religious matters. And we do it in a way that people actually enjoy, that people will seek out, that people will talk about with pleasure and excitement.
I feel that this is where the Spirit may be leading us, I am sure that success in such an attempt will bring us incalculable benefits – and I cannot believe that it is beyond our capability.
So why not try?
1: Any disagreement as to whether “evolved” is an appropriate term should be taken out on a dictionary. ^
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