Avoid Contentious Terms

February 23rd, 2021
ism, jargon, meta
A succinct term for a concept is great, but only if everyone involved views it similarly. If you're trying to write something persuasive, controversial terms are traps that can derail discussion and make finding common ground harder. Consider limiting yourself to well understood terms to avoid distracting from your core argument.

One of my favorite comments I've received was "you're really good at talking about the patriarchy without talking about the patriarchy," on a post about dividing tasks in marriage. I didn't use terms like "emotional labor", "sexism", or, as noted, "patriarchy". This typically involves slightly longer phrasing, but it's not too bad; that post has "not everyone wants to be or will be in a male-female couple" instead of bringing in "heteronormative". Similarly, a version of the post I wrote about tickling kids that used "consent" or "rape culture" would have been worse.

There are two main ways people bounce off terms:

  • Affiliation. A piece mentioning "emotional labor" will lead readers to one set of inferences about the author; one mentioning "traditional marriage" will bring different inferences to mind. This can be useful if you are trying to strengthen the views of people who already agree with you, but not if you're trying to bring in new people.

  • Confusion. Your audience may not know what your terms mean, or, worse, may think they mean something different than you do. In discussions with your friends a broad understanding of "racist" may be implicit, but if you use the term to describe credit scoring many readers will take it as a claim that the system was maliciously and intentionally designed to disadvantage people on the basis of their race, and perhaps that credit scores explicitly consider an applicant's race.

There are some downsides to this approach: it can make it harder to find your piece through searching and it can feel somewhat detached from the broader conversation on the issue. It's probably not for everyone, but it's a pragmatic approach I've found works well.

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