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Midnight Pub

Writing Down


Dear Reader,

One of my primary functions in the Bureaucracy is to communicate Its intentions and decision-making. I’m not quite in public relations, but there is that element to what I do. It involves a lot of writing, as thankfully I don’t have to actually talk to anyone outside of my office.

Naturally, this being the Bureaucracy, there are certain Forms that this communication must take. There are turns of phrase we use to mean certain things in specific contexts, and there are overall rules for how we need to organize things. This is fine; I understand that consistently can help, and that terms of art are often necessary provided their meanings aren’t completely outside of what a reader would expect.

What drives me up the wall, though, is the stylistic requirements. Admittedly I’ve had it worse; I once worked a job where the requirements were so specific as to require a specific purpose for each paragraph, and that in a specific order. But in my current gig we have a lot more individual freedom provided that the Forms are obeyed. So this sounds all well and good, and is certainly better.

I guess I should be more specific, then: it’s not just the stylistic requirements, it’s the demand that we not use “big words” out of fear that our target audience (who are generally poor) won’t understand what we mean.

We don’t have a list of forbidden words, which is even worse; it means each individual in my position is left to their own prejudices. If we’re going to standardize our use of the English language to within an inch of its life, why leave this aspect to personal discretion? What words that I know should I assume that my imagined reader doesn’t? How “big” is too big? We also don’t translate our words into the language of the reader if that’s something other than English.

The thing is, poor people aren’t stupid, even the un(der)-educated ones. They just get treated like they are.

The only words I’ll assume they don’t know are specific terms of art, which I do explain. But that’s only because I assume they don’t have training in my specific areas, not because I think they’re uneducated and can’t grasp what I’m getting at. Chances are the reader will figure out what I’m saying from context even if they don’t know what a specific word means (and most of the time, if they can’t, that’s my fault as a writer rather than their fault as a reader).

Sure, this requirement comes from a good place, but that’s how condescension works.

It’s such a strange prejudice when you think about it. We’re dealing with people who’ve successfully navigated the Bureaucracy, who are functioning independently as adults, yet someone decided that they needed to be talked to like they’re not. And that’s without getting into the assumptions that someone poor is also uneducated; never mind the fact that medical debt and student loan debt don’t just affect those who haven’t graduated high school.

But even if they had done none of those things, and were just people, that would be reason enough not to assume we’re smarter than they are. Because that’s inherently what we’re doing. In the current instance it takes the form of assuming knowledge we have that they don’t, but I think there’s often a far greater judgment underlying that, especially when it comes to something like vocabulary or other shibboleths of the intelligentsia, elite, or whatever else you’d care to call them.

After all, we’re assuming that a poor person has no interest in learning and that they won’t use a dictionary. Case in point: I knew the word “shibboleth,” but couldn’t remember how it’s spelled. So I looked it up! This is something that other people do too, even those who are not in the best place in their lives at any given point. I don’t see how we can complain about educational attainment and then just assume that certain classes of people don’t have it or refuse to engage with it. It’s certainly a convenient Get Out of Jail Free card for institutional and broader cultural failures. It’s just another way of blaming people for what’s happened to them, as opposed to recognizing how much is outside of our individual control. They’re poor because they’re uneducated, we might say, where “uneducated” is just a proxy for “idiots.”


It’s become trendy to say things like “believe science” or whatever, but of course there’s been far too little soul-searching about why science has been allowed to fail. My own take is that it’s trying to do too much: to paraphrase Frank Herbert, it’s trying to teach us the lawfulness events and to find our own place within it. Because when I say “anti-intellectualism,” I expect there was a very specific idea in your head of what that means.

But as Salomé Sibonex points out:

> The stereotype of the anti-intellectual breaks down in the face of university students who believe debate is dangerous, educated elites who believe shame and economic punishment are justice for disagreeable ideas, and perhaps even a media culture that believes the most important aspect of conveying information isn’t truth or accuracy, but outcomes and safety.¹

Far too often, we forget that it’s not the popular ideas that need protection. While education has immense value, its tendency to standardize thinking can sometimes run up against difficult issues. The answer, of course, isn’t to just say education doesn’t matter; I’m going to trust an educated physician over some random web site when it comes to medical care. But we still have to be willing to question the orthodoxy from time to time, and not see anyone who does as some kind of threat.

The best example I can think of is when it comes to religion. Conservatives are frequently laughed at for suggesting that there’s something wrong with the increasing rates of atheism in America. But then you have things like this:

> Doubling the rate of religious attendance raises household income by 9.1 percent, decreases welfare participation by 16 percent from baseline rates, decreases the odds of being divorced by 4 percent , and increases the odds of being married by 4.4 percent.²

I don’t pretend to know whether we can simply say more atheism = bad, but it’s clearly not as simple or subject to bright-line rules as many of us want to believe. Yet this kind of information is completely missing from public policy debates about religion simply because it conflicts with the orthodox view that religion leads to backwardness. So while American conservatives are usually wrong in how they frame this, there is a grain of truth to what they’re saying.

How this relates to the first part I wrote comes down simply to framing. But more framing in our own heads. It’s easy to say that we shouldn’t stereotype one another, but there seem to be only certain areas (such as race or sexual orientation) where that holds true. Meanwhile, everyone has political “enemies,” and it’s far harder to apply that level of charity to them. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.


¹ https://spiritualsoap.substack.com/p/weird-and-gud-when-forgetting-is

² https://www.nber.org/digest/oct05/religion-good-you

Write a reply


~tiernan wrote (thread):

I think the assumption that poor people are less educated/idiots as you say is rooted in the assumptions of meritocracy. People are expected to fall where their abilities can take them. Given the real differences in IQ (a relatively effective predictor of financial success) amongst people, there is probably some truth to this. However, especially nowadays, many people are poor for reasons out of their control. So yes, it is rather frustrating in that position.

But if you are an orginization that services, say, 20 thousand people of a certain group (poor, in this instance), how do you determine if this is true or not for each customer to avoid condescending or overwhelming?

As we 'zoom out' in discussions of social issues, I think stereotypes become more useful. They are, after all, aggregate observations of people over time (usually exaggerated). Whereas I would not make assumptions about someone at an individual level, a large organization may assume that "poor people are stupid" to be more effective and avoid problems later. If stupidity is a trait that only applies to 65% of the poor populace, than it may act as an effective heuristic.

It's usually a combination of factors, external and self-inflicted, that lead people to failure. Of course, no group is a monolith and there are always exceptions.


On the topic of science, "science" isn't supposed to be a body of beliefs about the world accepted by faith (what "trust the science" implies), rather, it's a self-correcting tool for observing nature that fits into other worldviews. Science itself hasn't 'failed,' but a worldview claiming its name has. --(If you're referring to the mask/covid debate in this statement, most right-wingers aren't distrusting the scientific method itself, just the people that distribute its supposed findings to the masses. The idea that lobbyists and politicians can fund & use scientific institutions to push a preconceived agenda is not inconceivable, even if you disagree that it's happening).


On the topic of religion, it doesn't really matter if it is beneficial to society or not. Of course I believe that Chrisitianity's rules of self-denial, striving for virtue, etc. create order and happy lives, but none of that matters if it isn't true. Both sides of these debates on whether we should keep religion around because it benefits society miss the fundamental issue that religions make claims of universal truth, and that they only really matter IF they are true. If they're not, than what is to be said? You can emulate their symptoms using other methods.

~nargran wrote (thread):

I think with the topic of atheism and well-being it's not direct causation between religion and well-being, but correlation. I think higher religiosity (of the established ones, not new ones) is usually a proxy for a less broken-down, atomized and disgregated community (they are "backwards"). Religiosity and its disappearance as the community "gets on with the times" are likely a side-effect, and I don't think it can turn back the steam-roller of "social progress". The attempts to bring religiosity back without its material and social roots usually either fail or turn into cults that thrive precisely on the weaknesses of the "progressed" communities.

I personally think only a major, never-seen-before catastrophe can bring human life back to what it's supposed to be. And if such a catastrophe were to happen, millions would die.

~pink2ds wrote (thread):

One thing I like about Maro's "New World Order" policy for making drastically simpler Magic cards is that it only has to apply to 80% of the most common cards. That leaves a lot of room for them to play around.

Using heuristics like

the various efforts to codify a "simple" English

can sometimes limit you from constructing the sentence in the most clear and straightforward way. The rule of thumb is getting in the way from the actual intention of the rule.

So a "meta-rule" like "80% of the text should be such-and-such Simple English system" can feel very freeing. It helps you feel the peace of mind that you've used the heuristic "enough" while not forcing you to use it "too much".

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