Dangers of Simplifying (response to Higher Grade English backlash)

26 Aug

After the resounding success of the Coconut lecture, there was a backlash that centered on ‘higher grade English’, people on Twitter speaking above the masses and thereby alienating them. I dismissed it, partly because it sounded like Black Twitter returning to its anti-intellectualism where recommending a book to a person is sacrilege.

Here are are some more thoughts on why that attitude is self-defeating and how to approach the situation.


Then again honey is winnie the pooh’s greatest problem


Example 1

I came to Buddhism via the Gautama Buddha quote of ‘Life is suffering’. As a heavily depressed teen, it seemed the Buddha really just got it unlike all that happy clappy Christianity.

The quote though has put many people off, who argued that Buddhism was a religion of depression and hopelessness.

Three decades later, a writer pointed out that ‘life is suffering’ is a simplification.

The word Buddha used was ‘dukkha’. Dukkha has no direct English translation. The writer offered the following ‘life experiences are inherently dissatisfying’.

A lot more mouthy, ‘higher grade English’ to some, but way more profound.

It offers a hint to how the suffering occurs. My depressed teen self would have been differently intrigued .

More importantly, the charge of Buddhism being religion of depression and hopelessness becomes dubious.

Simplifications hide as much as they reveal.

Example 2

Aristotle defined knowledge as justified true belief. It seems logical enough, so well everybody nods and moves.

However, as Professor Kinghorn pointed out each of those words deserves a book.

Justified by whom and to whom and for what purpose? (The power dynamic is hidden)

True – again who defines ‘true’ and how. This problem led to the science and the scientific method.

Belief – not even going to attempt this one in the age where cognitive sciences have taught us about unconscious bias.

My favourite definition of knowledge is ‘capacity to act’.

I like it because it hints at why knowledge is power?

It also has interesting implications. Bias is often wrong but it enables action including white supremacy, sexism, etc.

Ignorance thus becomes a form of knowledge – a justified untrue belief.

The trouble with asking people to simplify is that it grants them the power to determine how you learn about the topic. The mind by nature conserves energy leading to confirmation bias, so that first simplification is the lens you are likely to filter all further information on the subject.

It sets up a master/student power relationship and is thus inherently disempowering.

Boundary Spanner

My suggestion is to approach even topics spoken in ‘higher grade’ English with a will to learn and not just consume.

If knowledge requires effort to be learned, it is more likely to be remembered because again mind hates wasting energy.

If on Twitter, a conversation amongst say Black university students on Blackness includes terms you do not understand instead of fuming at the lack of simplification when people are talking about your ‘lived experience’ try a few learning tricks.

In the internet age, access to information is remarkably simplified.

Find a boundary spanner

A boundary spanner is a person who straddles two communities and can translate.

Ask about the term used and how it is different to your preferred simpler term. Seek clarity, help your mind navigate.

If this extra effort means you miss half the conversation, no problem. The topic of Blackness and most topics that matter will still matter tomorrow.

I also still hold that academics must try to write in a more accessible manner. I am reading Niklas Luhmann and my brain writhes against the excruciating experience but the man’s theory is on point. So, I am slogging through.


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