Tuesday 19 November 2013

Scared away by jargon?

Last month I discovered the new IDS-BRIDGE resource pack on Gender and Social Movements (scroll down to my 11 October post for all the links). I was so excited about the new resource that I distributed the handy "in brief bulletin" document to all prospective participants of a gender sensitisation workshop (with NGO staff relatively new to gender issues) - as a preparatory reading.

I should have known better.
My workshop day started fine, with getting-to-know-each-other and perspective-changing exercises. When I pulled out the bulletin, the mood changed. Participants became more reserved, more defensive. Yes, one said, he had read the bulletin before the meeting, but he found it rather off-putting. Was it about jargon, I asked. Yes, jargon, "and then, the document is only about women". Another participant joined in, saying that she felt the document was only about women's movements, or about movements that dealt with issues of special interest to women, such as agriculture. 'Her' movement was different, she found. A third one sighed and said that after reading the resource pack, she felt that 'her' movement still had a long, long way to go if it wanted to get anywhere near gender justice.

Some of these perceptions are inaccurate: The resource pack - or the message it contains - is potentially helpful to any movement. I can't think of any social movement that would not be of interest to any women. Actually, I find it hard to imagine any social movement that would reasonably want to exclude women.
The bulletin is not 'only' about women and men: it does refer to 'intersectionality', i.e. the way in which aspects of one's identity reinforce or soften gender inequality or injustice. (An example for the effects of 'inter-sectionality': If you are a female member of a very rich social class in a country where women are confined to their households, you might become the President of that country and no-one will find it strange. That is because your social class enables you to live a life that is different from that of most other women - i.e. the power you hold as a member of your social class compensates for some of the powerlessness associated with womanhood in that country context.)

So what is it with the "in brief bulletin" that makes people believe it doesn't apply to them?


When we spend much of our lives working in a certain field, we become fluent in a specialised language. So fluent that in the end the specialised language infests everything we write and say. I have a statistician colleague; his language is full of frequencies and distributions. That is fine as long as you are with your peers. When you would like others to understand you, you need to remember that what you mean by the words you use is not necessarily what others understand. And when you use jargon with people who are not used to it, you can be pretty sure you'll be misunderstood.

The bulletin is beautifully structured. It includes images, text boxes, summaries - everything you would want for an inviting read. But when you examine the text, you find plenty of jargon. For instance, the box that summarises the characteristics of gender-just social movements in 8 bullet points includes the following line: "[A gender-just social movement] Appreciates the gender dimensions of  backlash and external opposition faced by activists." Alright. If I was new to gender studies, would I know what a gender dimension is? How would I interpret the term "backlash"? And where exactly is "external"?

Studying the bulletin more closely, I realise it hardly contains any sentences which don't imply a good command of jargon. For instance, in "How can we build gender-just social movements?", the section "Support internal activism for change" reads "Getting behind initiatives on women's rights by movement members might involve supporting both women's collective power and individual change-makers, building feminist leadership or developing platforms and caucuses on equality." What is women's collective power (especially in an 'intersectional' world)? What is an individual change-maker (surely this is not about coins)? What does feminist leadership look like?

All this sounds abstract and probably a bit scary to people who don't live in the midst of this particular collection of words. That is potentially counterproductive: the more abstract, the more unreachable things sound.

Women only?

The bulletin does appear to conflate "women's rights" with "gender justice", even though I am convinced that is not its intention. Arguably, women's rights issues are the most prevalent form of gender injustice. The bulletin does refer to other gender issues, for example in the bullet point "A gender-just social movement] Takes into account context-specific gender identities, trans and intersex identities and shifting understandings of gender in life and social activism." But again, this is abstract and jargony - the uninformed reader will have difficulties seeing that this is not necessarily about women 'only', and that 'feminist leadership' is not about oppressing men.

Still commendable reading - for experts

I am still happy the resource pack is "out there". It is a helpful compilation of materials for people with good knowledge of the terminology, for example 'gender specialists' in organisations and consultants working on gender issues. Based on the experience I have had, I would not recommend it for unfiltered sharing with less informed people. Less informed people need materials which use terms that are understandable to 'outsiders', and which contain simple, straightforward examples that anyone can try out 'at home'.
Btw I wonder whether the bulletin is currently undergoing revision - the link on the IDS BRIDGE site is broken.

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