How to sound dumb to smart people

Reading this article by my friend Zoya Patel, editor of Lip magazine, about people who use the word feminazi, I was reminded of something I used to tell my students about the language they chose to use in essays (though it applies to any written or verbal communication). I told them that they could, if they wanted, use pseudo-formal language, the kind that the police use when talking to the media. The sergeant will say, “Police apprehended the individual”, instead of: “We arrested him.” I told them that this sort of language would make them sound smart to dumb people, and dumb to smart people. It was slightly elitist, slightly unkind, but I thought it was a good line and maybe even true.

The same goes for something like the word feminazi. Zoya was worried because:

The term feminazi is obviously a patriarchal construct, designed to create a view of feminism as being extreme, threatening to the status quo, and generally ridiculous. There’s no better way to negate the power of a movement than to create a view of it as being both unnecessary for society, and generally ludicrous. If every feminist who dares to speak out against sexism is treated as if she is being a hysterical woman speaking out of turn, then of course the legitimacy of what she may be saying is negated. It’s a clever move, patriarchy.

True, no doubt, but anyone who does care about language or truth recognises that feminazi is a ludicrous term. In fact, that goes for anything with Nazi appended to it. It implies that Nazi is just a general category and people can be nazi-ish by being ardent in their views about particular issues: if you’re going on about equality for women, you’re a feminazi; if you’re obsessed with soup and soup-ordering etiquette, you’re a soup nazi; and if you’re bent on racial hygiene and destroying Europe’s Jewish population, you’re a race nazi, like the Nazis were.

So the concomitant effect of using a term like feminazi is that to an informed audience, the term will instantly discredit the speaker. A lot of people, me and  Zoya included, will find the term to be ridiculous and this will instantly dis-empower the person deploying it. It’s like when someone compares Obama to Hitler; for one section of an audience, this will immediately feed their hatred of Obama and the speaker’s tactic will have worked. For another section of the audience, it will backfire on the speaker and they will consider the speaker an idiot.

One frequently has to choose the audience one wishes to target.  The person who says feminazi has — consciously or not— chosen their audience and I suspect most of their chosen audience were already receptive to anti-feminist sentiments. By using highly emotive, rhetorical language, one plays a high-risk/high-return strategy whereby receptive audience members will strongly agree and un-receptive audience members will be alienated. A speaker could use neutral, descriptive language in an attempt at engaging a wide audience, but I suspect this would be a low-risk/low-return strategy whereby few people are completely alienated, but few are highly engaged.

The fear, when people say things like feminazi, is always that it will bamboozle someone other than oneself; it’s a bit like when people in favour of censorship always fear that a risque film will morally corrupt someone else, who presumably has a weaker constitution. Maybe it’s true. The people to worry about would be those who are in a marginal zone who are slightly receptive to ideas like feminists being tantamount to Nazis, but who have not yet been won over to a particular side. These are the ones Zoya is presumably worried about. There is a race on for their all too labile hearts and minds, unthinking zombies that they are.

Of course George Orwell, W H Auden and a bunch of other writers (themselves bent on influencing public opinion) made it a bit of a movement in the middle of the 20th century to keep language precise, fearing that imprecise language would lead to something like the actual Nazis. There’s that fantastic epigram Auden trotted out a few times (which all my internets tell me is not his originally):

We are all on earth to help others. What on earth the others are here for, I can’t imagine.

Perhaps smart people think they are all here to make sure others aren’t fed bullshit, “weasel words” and misinformation; what on earth the others think they’re here for, would therefore be dependent on whose bullshit was more convincing.

Addendum: since I drafted this article some weeks ago, an interesting battle has ensued on the Lip website. Some men’s rights activists (MRAs) from the website, A Voice for Men, have set Lip in their sights and have been commenting on many different posts as well as writing articles on their website denouncing Lip as a nonpareil case of misandry. I think the men’s movement speaks for itself but you might find interesting my response to an MRA on a comment thread for an article I wrote a while ago for Lip about why feminists should stop waiting around for men to join the fight.

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