academia jargon

listen I’m not even remotely fucking around, this blog is meant as a safe place to discuss and laugh about our struggles with executive dysfunction and to find a sense of community. This blog is meant to provide validation, resources, and humor, and I am NOT here for people trying to shut that down by misinterpreting and misrepresenting the scope of how disabling executive dysfunction can really be.

this started as a vent blog but I’ve gotten so many nice messages and tags from people so happy they’ve finally found an explanation for this intangible horror they’ve struggled with their whole lives, people who are learning to not hate themselves and to not feel so goddamn alone. I didn’t have any sense of any of that until my early 20s after a lifetime of struggling without knowing why, blaming myself and hating myself for being disabled.

I have words and resources and the pissy attitude to put those into action and that’s what I’m going to do here. It’s hard to advocate for yourself, and it’s hard to advocate for other people, especially about something you’re self-conscious about or hate about yourself or don’t have the words or resources to explain. So as long as this blog can serve as an effective platform, that’s what I’m gonna use it for. I’m sick of people stepping all over me and I’m sick of watching other people get stepped on.

The tl;dr version of my post about cognitive disability and academic communication styles in social justice circles.

I’m usually very bad at summarizing my longer posts.  In fact, it’s usually impossible.  This upsets me a lot because it means that a lot of my posts are unreadable to a lot of people.  Sometimes, though, I’m able to summarize things.  I’ve been able to do it here.  

If you want to read the whole, original post, click here:  Cognitively disabled people DO get to complain about jargon, academia, etc. in our movements.  Seriously, we do.

But here’s the basic gist of what I’m saying:

  • Academic language and academic communication styles have become an enormous part of social justice movements both online and in universities.
  • This language and communication style is impossible for a lot of people to understand.  Most ordinary people can’t understand it.  Many oppressed people have particular trouble understanding it.  Many cognitively disabled people will never understand it.
  • I am not telling anyone to give up academic language or communication styles.  Some people can’t (including because of disabilities), some people won’t.  I’m just trying to say that there’s something wrong when an entire movement is based on these communication styles, to the point you have to be able to understand it and use it in order to participate fully.
  • On tumblr, people who bring this up often get told it doesn’t exist, and that what we call ‘academic’ is just ‘people talking about their lives’.  This is partly because academia has so thoroughly shaped how oppressed people in certain social movements talk about their lives, that people really do think this is how you talk about your life if you’re oppressed, period.
  • I posted a long list of words that create little explosions in my head every time I read them, that are used in social justice circles constantly.  My intent is not to tell people not to use those words.  It’s to prove that yes, there is jargon, I am not imagining this or making things up.
  • I am, myself, oppressed in many different ways.  Fighting oppression is a survival issue for me.  I’m also cognitively disabled in ways that make these academia-influenced social circles very, very difficult for me to communicate within or understand.  I’m not writing this just to bother people (I’m no more anti-SJ than I’m SJ), I’m writing this because for my own survival I need social movements to be accessible to people like me.
  • Ordinary people, all over the world, fight oppression in amazing ways.  Without ever coming up with new jargon, without forming academic departments at universities, without engaging in sophisticated academic argumentation styles, without becoming inaccessible to ordinary people.
  • People need to stop denying that this stuff is academic in nature.  Right now it seems like people will admit it’s academic if it gives them more credibility (“it’s not just tumblr, this is how Real Sociologists talk!”), but if anyone says it makes things inaccessible, suddenly they say “There’s nothing academic going on here, nothing at all.”  This makes it impossible to address the problem.
  • People can still do their academic stuff it they want to or need to.  I’m not stopping anyone.  I just really, really don’t think this stuff should be at the core of any movement that seeks to end oppression.  Because that just makes things impossible for a lot of people, including the people who most need these movements.
  • My dream is exactly that:  Ordinary people, including cognitively disabled people, fighting oppression.  Talking about our oppression without needing fancy words.  Fighting oppression without needing academic argumentation tactics.  Doing all these things, without needing this academic stuff.  I know it’s already happening offline, everywhere around the world, in fact.  But I’d like to see it happen on places like tumblr, too.
  • It’s possible to be intellectual without being academic.  I do it all the time.
  • Not all cognitively disabled people have the same problems with the same stuff.  Some cognitively disabled people even need to communicate in an academic style.  But there’s a huge number of cognitively disabled people who can’t participate in these discussions because both the language and the entire structure and mentality of the discussion is too academic in a way that we can’t penetrate no matter how hard we try.  Some of us stick around and tough it out and try to change things, but more walk away on sight.  And lots of ordinary oppressed people have the same reaction.

And even though that was kind of long, that was much shorter than the original post.  If you want more detail, see the original post, it’s lots more detailed and may clarify some things that I leave out here.

Cognitively disabled people DO get to complain about jargon, academia, etc. in our movements. Seriously. We do.

[If this post is too long for you, try this other post, which summarizes it, but doesn’t have quite as much information.]

First off, quickly, to get this over with:  I am not telling anyone to change their language. People can make their own decisions on whether to change their language.  I have language disabilities that make it very hard for me to change my language.  So I pretty much never, ever tell anyone they absolutely have to change their language.  And I never assume that someone’s language skills are so good that changing language would  be easy for them.  You can’t tell that by reading an essay or something.  Also, I’m not against the existence of academia, I’m against the insistence that academia and things learned from it are necessary in the everyday runnings of anti-oppression movements.

Also, I understand the irony of writing a really really long post that some cognitively disabled people can’t read, in order to complain about inaccessibility of stuff to cognitively disabled people.  Unfortunately long posts are a side-effect of some of my own cognitive disabilities.  I often literally can’t read my own writing after I’m finished with it, not kidding.  I tag my long posts with #long or #long post.  Or both, usually.

Now that this is out of the way, on to what I really want to say.

People who fight oppression often use a lot of jargon.  That jargon is difficult to read and often academic in nature.  But we’re not allowed to actually say this – except when we are.  There’s two main scenarios:

1.  Someone has been exposed to tumblr social justice for awhile, but hasn’t seen anything like it anywhere else.  She goes to university and takes a women’s studies class.  All the words and concepts are familiar from tumblr.  She is overjoyed.  She makes a long post about how, in fact, people should be okay with all the jargon because it’s actually what Real Academics use when doing Real Sociology, and it means that tumblr social justice is incredibly meaningful and on the right track.  Because it is so much like academia, so it must be right.

2.  Someone complains that the academic jargon and buzzwords used in tumblr social justice contexts (among others) makes it impossible for a lot of ordinary people, including himself, to follow what is going on.

In the first instance, it is okay to mention jargon, because the jargon is being mentioned in a good light.  In the second instance, it is terrible to mention jargon.  And they must convince the person, as quickly as possible, that there is no actual jargon being used and that the whole idea that it’s jargon is all in his head, and oppressive besides.

I usually run into the second situation.

I’m just going to lay this out here, because my problem is a common one, and it’s not the only problem that can result:

I am cognitively disabled.  I have, in particular, a problem with understanding language.   I am much better at creating words than understanding words.  My receptive vocabulary is small.  When I encounter a word outside of my receptive vocabulary, I don’t just skip over it.  It creates a sensation that is almost like an explosion in my head.  It is physically painful.  It then creates a blank space, a blank space that try as I might, I can’t fill in.  This can even happen with words that I sometimes understand.  It can even happen with words that I am able to use easily, but not understand easily.

Other people have cognitive disabilities that affect their ability to understand jargon in other ways.

Other people have English as a second language, and jargon can be extremely difficult.

Other people have limited education, limited access to books, and limited vocabularies as a result.

All of these things can be connected to oppression, strangely enough.

Yet whenever those of us in these positions bring this up, this is what we get told:

“There is no jargon.  There are no buzzwords.  We are just people talking about our lives.  When anti-SJ people want to shut us down, they try and talk about our jargon and buzzwords.  But really there is no jargon and buzzwords.  And if you say that there is, you are oppressing us.”

This is not acceptable.

Neither is being told that if we don’t understand them, it’s because we lack the ability to understand oppression properly.  

Neither is being told that if we don’t understand them, it’s because we don’t experience the oppression in question.

Neither is the hostility.  The snark.  The put-downs.  Often put-downs that are themselves ableist or classist.

One of the least acceptable things to me is the denial.

The part where you say “Move along, nothing to see here.  There is no jargon, how dare you call it jargon.  It is not academic, how dare you call it academic.”

And on the note of academic things, the problem is not just that the language used is overly academic and difficult for people outside academia.  It’s that academia teaches entire ways of interacting with the world.

It teaches a way of interacting with the world where you can argue for or against any point of view possible, with lightning precision.  I’ve tried to have conversations with people who were doing this to me.  Here’s what it felt like:

I tried to say something.

They formulated an entire, coherent argument that crushed everything that I was saying, and also lots of things I wasn’t saying at all but that they insisted I must be thinking.  (Insisted.  Seriously.  Over and over again, insisted I must be thinking, until people reading the discussion assumed I was thinking those things too, even though I’d never said those things or anything remotely like them.)  

No matter what I said, they found an argument against it.  It wasn’t even that they were arguing their own viewpoint.  They were just arguing against mine.  So they’d take every single thing I said and find a way to argue that it was, in fact, wrong.  For me the point when I stopped believing there was any amount of good faith on their end, was when they tried to argue something so absurd that it could only come out of an academic-style argument of that type.  But basically they had gone over everything I said with a microscope, and then found a way to attack each piece of what I said, individually, each with a fully-formed argument of sorts.

That is a weapon, and it is an academic weapon, and it is a weapon that is taught to people in academic contexts, and it is a weapon that people learn either in academia, or from people who have been through academia.

That is not communication.  It’s bludgeoning another human being with words because you feel like it, or because you feel justified somehow.  And it’s very, highly, academic.

We’re not supposed to say anything is academic though.

Apparently, it’s oppressive to call these things academic, even when they are clearly academic.  The only time it’s not oppressive to call these things academic, is when you’re using ‘academic’ as a compliment – for instance, “This isn’t just tumblr, this is how they do things in real academia!”  People who say that get a free pass.  People who can’t handle academic communication styles, on the other hand, get told we’re oppressing people by calling their communication style academic.  Even when their communication style is about as academic as it is humanly possible to get.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with academic, in academia.  But when you’re trying to run an anti-oppression movement using academic buzzwords and academic arguing tactics and academic everything, then yes, something is wrong.  When those things become the norm in such movements, something is very, very wrong.

Because ordinary people can’t communicate that way or understand what you’re saying when you communicate that way.  And I’m talking just ordinary people here, not even people who are necessarily oppressed in any way.

But people who do face additional oppression?  Especially the combination of ableism, classism, and racism that keep people out of contexts where they could learn these things?  And especially people who would never be able to learn these things no matter what advantages they were given?

It’s even worse for us.

And this especially goes for cognitively disabled people.  Which, just so we’re clear, isn’t about IQ, it’s about any disability that affects cognition.  Autism, intellectual disability, dementia, learning disabilities, and brain injury are all very different conditions medically, but they’re all cognitive disabilities because they all affect thinking.  And many, many different cognitive disabilities are going to make people have trouble with academic language and academic arguing styles.

What kind of trouble we’re going to have varies a lot by the person.

We might be able to use academic language, but be unable to understand it, or we may be unable to use it, but able to understand it, or we may be unable to either use or understand it.  Or we may have trouble using or understanding it but be able to on a good day, with a lot of effort.  You get the picture.  

We may completely crumble when faced with an academic-style 'argument’ against our position, even when we’re in the right and we know it.  Because we can’t argue back, or can’t do it in a way the other person is going to respect.  

In my case, I crumble in those contexts a lot unless I take specific steps to prevent it (and even then…).  Because I get bombarded it’s like being hit by all sides with “you’re wrong because _____” repeated a hundred million times, and I can’t handle that amount of information it’s like information overload, and then even when I know I’m right, I’m not always going to be able to tell you why I’m right.

Which is why academic argumentation feels like a weapon sometimes.

But we’re not supposed to say it’s academic.  I’ve even read that it’s sexist, racist, or both, to call academic social justice buzzwords academic (or to refer to it as “buzzwords” or “jargon”), or to suggest there’s anything wrong with it being academic, or any problems that it being academic causes.  Because apparently since women and people of color came up with a lot of these words (in academic contexts, a lot of the time, mind you, like women’s studies departments), then we’re supposed to embrace them wholeheartedly and not point out that they can make things inaccessible for a lot of people.

And honestly there’s something very wrong about the fact that they’ve got it twisted around so that it’s oppressive to point out the oppression in what they’re doing.  That’s high-level mind-twisting stuff.  Which also makes things very difficult for cognitively disabled people.

And there may be a need for this academic stuff, these buzzwords, in certain contexts.  I don’t know.  I’m just saying there may be a need for it somewhere.

But when it becomes everywhere?  That’s a problem.

When it becomes mandatory?  That’s a problem.

When you can’t participate in your own movement because of it?  That’s a problem.

And that’s what a lot of people are facing.

Ordinary people who don’t have the background for this.  Which is most ordinary people, everywhere.  Which is exactly who you want involved in these movements, you’d think.  If so many people within the movements didn’t have their heads so far up their own asses, anyway.

Cognitively disabled people.  Especially cognitively disabled people.  (Yes, there are cognitively disabled people who do great with academic stuff.  I’m not talking about them right here, right now.  I’m talking about people who find academic stuff totally inaccessible in one or more ways.)  We’re the ones that I think are hit the hardest by it, because our brains literally can’t do this no matter how many classes we take or how much we are exposed to it.  So no amount of 'educating us’ will make it better.  The only way to include us is to actually change what you are doing, rather than expecting us to magically change.

And no, even now, I will not tell anyone that they absolutely must drop their mountain of jargon and buzzwords.  Because I know, still, that there are people who can’t, for a million reasons, they can’t.  There is jargon and buzzwords that I myself can’t stop using.  I can’t very well tell others who can’t stop, that they must stop.

But for people who can, I do wish more would.

I wish people who were able, would work at making their communication more accessible to a wider range of people.  

And that goes beyond avoiding academic jargon.  It goes beyond becoming more concrete and less abstract.

It also involves unlearning certain academic styles of communicating, and not using them to bludgeon everyone who disagrees with you.

There’s a lot of academic stuff that I don’t even have names for, that I can’t even describe, that has made it into these movements precisely because these movements have come to be defined by things that take place in women’s studies, disability studies, black studies, and similar academic departments.  These places, and the things people learn in them, have become the way people understand oppression.  And while people are taking part in these departments, they’re usually in school learning other academic stuff.  And all that academic stuff is stuff they take with them back into the social justice movements that they participate in.  And then that stuff gets passed around on places like tumblr, to people who have never been in academia but still absorb all these ideas and ways of interacting that ultimately come from academia.  

And then those people who have never formally been exposed to academia but still are absorbing all this academic stuff from people who have been in academia, are the ones who say the loudest, “But there’s nothing academic happening!  We’re just talking about our lives and people call it academic.”

They probably sincerely believe that.

Because the way in which they have been taught to discuss their lives is academic.  The way in which they have been taught to discuss oppression is academic.  These things come from academia, and when people want to use that as a means of legitimizing things, then everyone admits it.  It’s only when people complain that everyone starts denying the academic roots of so much of the way these movements are handled on tumblr and elsewhere.

So yes, oppressed people just talk about their lives and it gets called academic.  Because loads and loads of oppressed people have learned how to talk about their lives from academia.  Academia that is controlled largely by oppressed people, but still academia.  With all the privilege that academia generally entails.

I want non-academic ways to talk about oppression.

I want cognitively disabled people talking about oppression as we experience it, minus buzzwords we can’t easily understand or use.

I want ordinary people able to discuss oppression without having to learn a whole new vocabulary.

I want to be able to discuss academia’s heavy influence within anti-oppression movements without being told the influence doesn’t exist and that I’m being oppressive by mentioning it.  When I’m a fucking cognitively disabled person who can’t do most of the jargon and buzzwords no matter how much I bang my head on them, and believe me I tried everything before I realized somewhere that I wasn’t at fault.

Here’s a list of words that create miniature explosions in my brain.  Some of them do it at all times, some of them only do it when used in certain ways.  Some of the explosions are worse than others.  Don’t you dare tell me that if I tried harder I would understand them, or that my problem is that I’m not oppressed enough to understand them, or that I am attacking the types of oppressed people who came up with them.  Don’t even.  Just fucking don’t.  And don’t try to define them for me, it won’t make it any easier, and if you don’t understand why, just trust me.

  • normative
  • normativity
  • heteronormative
  • mononormative
  • hegemony
  • intersectionality
  • trope
  • homosocial
  • heterosexism
  • cissexism
  • decentering
  • discourse
  • disenfranchisement
  • allistic
  • coalition
  • coalescing
  • structural violence
  • co-opt
  • patriarchy
  • heteropatriarchy
  • patricentricity
  • heterocentric
  • ciscentric
  • deconstruction
  • normative
  • kyriarchy
  • [anything] industrial complex
  • marginalized
  • queering
  • community building
  • performative
  • performativity
  • othering
  • textual
  • intertextual
  • praxis
  • on point
  • essentializing

This was true of some of the other ones, but especially the following are ones that only give me that explosion thing when used in certain contexts:

  • narrative
  • navigating
  • accountability
  • spaces
  • performed
  • performing
  • performance
  • interrogating
  • negotiating
  • oppositional
  • social justice
  • gaze
  • analysis
  • dynamic

You’ll note that I even use some of these words on occasion.  I have two separate vocabularies, one for using words and one for understanding words.  My vocabulary for using words accurately within sentences is far larger than my vocabulary for understanding words.  That’s common for my particular set of cognitive disabilities.

I have never published this list in its entirety before.  But I thought I should now.  I spent years writing down every time a word made my brain explode on a regular basis.  And for a long time I wouldn’t publish the list because people in these movements are so fond, so very fond, of making lists of words that you can’t say.  And that’s not what I’m doing here.  I’m not saying you can’t say these words.  I’m using these words to illustrate the point that damn straight there is jargon and damn straight is a lot of it highly academic, no matter how much anyone wants to deny it.

Use these words as much as you feel you have to, just be aware that lots of people can’t understand them.  And that not understanding a word isn’t always a neutral experience, in my case it can cause extreme pain and cognitive dysfunction.  This doesn’t mean I hold you responsible for everything that happens in my brain as a result of reading these words.  Maybe you need these words, maybe there are things you can’t say yet without them.  And I’m the last person to simply want to create yet another list of Forbidden Words For Social Justice People To Ever Say because I hate that entire way of doing things on principle.

But I would love…

I would absolutely love…

If one day, we could say everything we needed to say, and nobody had to resort to words like those ones to say it in.

If one day, ordinary people and cognitively disabled people weren’t looking at these online social justice movements, taking one good look at how people communicate, and going “uh-uh, no way, I’m outta here, can’t do this.”  And only the most tenacious of us sticking around trying to change things.

If people didn’t think that academic ways of understanding oppression were automatically so superior.  Because seriously, right now, there’s a lot of people out there who think that we can’t do without them.  That this 'analysis’ (including the words, including the ways of thinking, including everything) is what’s required in order to end oppression.

Because honestly?

Ordinary people work to end oppression every day without learning a single one of these words.  Ordinary people and cognitively disabled people form our own ways of doing things.  Ordinary people do these things.  Without creating new words.  Without creating analyses.  Without creating academic fields.  Without creating new departments at universities.  There are people all over the world doing all kinds of things to end all kinds of oppression.  Uneducated people, cognitively disabled people, ordinary people, just ordinary people.

But you wouldn’t know it from the way lots of tumblr approaches the issue.

Oh, and because I know this might get passed around to people who don’t know me?  I’m multiply disabled (physically, cognitively, psychiatrically, chronically ill), queer, genderless, fat, poor, and raised female.  The fact that I reject certain ways of dealing with oppression, doesn’t mean that ending oppression isn’t as key to my survival as any other oppressed person.  I deal with survival issues on an everyday basis.  I need anti-oppression movements as much as anyone, and I need ones that are not spectacularly inaccessible to me.  That’s why I write things like this.  Not because I’m privileged and get off on tweaking the noses of SJ folks or something.  I’m no more anti-SJ than I’m SJ.  I consider writing things like this an obligation, because unlike many other people in my position, I am able to write them.  So I do.

These spaces, even though they’re supposed to be welcoming, safe spaces, they still are infected by the ills that all other spaces are - racism and misogyny and elitism and classism, academia jargon and all of this stuff. These spaces aren’t immune. If you come into these spaces knowing that and your job is to come in and make it a better space.
—  janetmock on finding community as a trans person, especially when not all LGBTQ spaces are inclusive to trans people. Listen at or on tumblr here.