Recently my movement history project has moved decisively from the phase of processing interview material (though bits and pieces of that will drag on for months, still) to producing a book proposal and, ultimately, a book. That has led me to think a lot about the phenomena of writing from a particular standpoint and/or for a particular audience.
What I've been thinking about divides into two questions. The more general question is about what exactly the role and significance are of accessibilty versus specialization of discourse. When is it a problem that only a limited number of people could easily understand what you write (or say)?
I remember really being struck by this issue a few years ago, when a friend was talking about her time at a conference related to popular education and social change (or something like that) and was frustrated by all of the jargon -- it was a bunch of largely white, overeducated, privileged progressives talking about popular education that would happen in the context of working class communities of colour, working class white communities, and immigrant communities. The way it was being talked about was such that many people in those communities would find completely alienating and inaccessible. This is a particularly galling example of inaccessible discourse because it wasn't some random topic, it was very much about the people to whom it would be inaccessible. In a way, it treated these people as objects of the discourse, rather than as subjects welcome to participate in shaping it.
But while there is obviously lots wrong in that example, it doesn't follow that all instances of discourse that are in some way inaccessible or geared towards a specialist audience are therefore bad. For one thing, there is no such thing as universally accessible communication -- any world that I can imagine in which one piece of writing would be understandable by all would be one shaped by cultural imperialism of some kind, or perhaps some sort of armageddon-like catastrophe. Of course recognizing that all communication is limited in some way is potentially dangerous; it is kind of a reduction to the point of absurdity that risks trivializing questions of accessibility. However, I still think it's an important point to start with, because it makes us realize that some sort of abstracted, idealized notion of universal accessibility is neither possible nor useful, and that it is important to figure out the significance of accessibility and its lack as lived experience when trying to figure out how they should shape our writing.
When might inaccessibility be forgiveable? Well, it is hard to imagine having some kinds of technical writing be accessible to everyone. Cutting open somebody's heart and fixing bits of it is a pretty tricky thing and it is pretty darn important, when communicating about methods and conditions and circumstances, to be precise, so there is a certain legitimacy to medical literature on heart surgery containing specialized language that is inaccessible to most of us.
In terms of academia outside of science and technical pursuits, there are certainly times where inaccessible discourse is all about bowing to institutional or disciplinary fashion, showing off to colleagues, producing a particular aesthetic without concern for exclusion, and other less than noble things. But sometimes new ways of using language that are not easy to pick up on are actually useful -- sometimes that approach is really the most effective way of conveying a new and important ways of thinking about things that matter.
However, even when it is justified, specialized, inaccessible discourse still has some downsides that are tied up with power and authority. The technical nature of mainstream medical discourse and the authority that health care providers have lead some people to, quite sensibly, rebel and seek more empowering alternatives. However, precisely because of the inaccessible nature of the discourse, often this rebellion is not as productive as it could be -- it is often reactive rather than well grounded in a solid understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of conventional medicine. This often makes all that much easier for medical professionals to refuse to listen to the counter-arguments, because even though they are based on sound principles, they are significantly flawed in terms of the details.
In other words, specialist discourse in many cases functions to preserve illegitimate authority, regardless of the intentions of individual users of that discourse.
The most extreme examples of this, such as some vanguardist, authoritarian leftists, or the neoconservative disciples of Leo Strauss deliberately employ language in ways that protect their monopoly on power in a given arena, and limit the rest of us to responding to what they say and do rather than shaping the options for ourselves.
So how does this relate to my book?
In a way, the discussion so far leads mostly to fairly obvious conclusions when applied to this book-in-progress: a major point of this work is to bring social movement history and progressive ideas to new people, so I need to maximize accessibility. This should mostly be fairly easy to do. There is lots of material out there that I think is important to understanding history and how power works that might be inaccessible to the average reader, but most of that I won't need to draw on, and what I do I can present in an accessible way.
But this leads to the second facet of this issue which I have been pondering: not only does the technical complexity/obscurity of a piece of writing impact on the ability of readers to read it, but so does the standpoint or point-of-view from/to which it is written. But I think I'll deal with that in another posting.