FRSA Ben Bennetts argues that in seeking to engage people in public debate and in the projects we do, the RSA and its Fellows need to use a vocabulary that is fit for purpose.
Next month, the Plain Writing Act of 2010 comes into force in the US. It seems to be like the Plain English Campaign with teeth. Not a bad idea, not least if it forces government officials to think, really think, about how ordinary people react to information.
For example: a few years ago I passed a road sign saying "Roadworks start here 4th February for 17 weeks". Useful information. Except that you glimpse the sign for a few seconds, and spend the next mile trying to count 17 weeks forward from 4th February. I called the council and suggested they change it to "Road works here from 4th February to early June". They could not see the problem.
Language has many different functions, and it is neither possible nor appropriate to come up with a universal vernacular that fulfills them all. Jargon may be inaccessible to the lay reader, but it is vastly more precise to the specialist. It makes perfect sense to have complex technical instructions for those who administer benefits or planning law, and plain English guides for the citizen telling them what to expect when they apply.
But some concepts just cannot be simplified beyond a certain point. Language has evolved over thousands of years to become capable of conveying complex and exacting ideas. That fact alone is one of the wonders of human achievement. There is, to be sure, a skill in being able to convey complex ideas simply but for any idea or concept or message, there is a point beyond which it cannot be simplified without distorting or destroying its meaning. The greater skill, surely, is in knowing where to stop.
The problem with jargon arises in three cases. First, inept translation from jargon to plain English. Second, where the audience expands beyond that for which the language was originally intended, for example when lay people get hold of technical material online. Thirdly, where authors do not understand or acknowledge the linguistic capabilities and limitations of their audience.
This last is perhaps the most problematic of all. It is often unintentional and seldom malicious, but happens all the time. I was recently reading the RSA pamphlet on Arts Funding, Austerity and the Big Society. I work in the public sector; I am an arts graduate and consider myself reasonably intelligent and well-informed. I would like to think that I could engage with this debate. But from the outset I encountered the term 'instrumentalism'. I had to read the first ten pages before I could glean from the context what the authors meant by it. ‘Instrumental’ meant something different when I took my music degree.
Is the word 'instrumentalism' in widespread use in arts management? Quite probably. Is this pamphlet intended solely or even primarily for arts professionals, though? I hope not. The last thing we need, in a time of austerity, is for the debate about the public value of the arts to be confined to politicians and arts administrators.
Sadly the RSA's blogs, and those of some Fellows, can sometimes suffer from the same phenomenon. Posts themselves may be clear and engaging: this from Tessy Britton, is a case in point. But the comments that follow them can become dominated by social entrepreneurs with a shared but exclusive vocabulary. In this example, 'advocacy organising', 'community organising' and 'neighbourhood organising' clearly mean three specific but distinct things, but I’ve no idea what.
Like management-speak, the words comprising the vocabulary of 'social-entrepreneur-speak' are often borrowed from the wider vernacular, but seem to have become re-defined. As an informed lay reader, I therefore recognise the words but cannot understand their meaning, so I am prevented from engaging in the conversation. I should probably seek enlightenment about what some of these terms mean, but of course I never do. Why not? Because we confuse fluency in jargon with general intelligence. Because I don't want to appear stupid by exposing my ignorance of jargon in the presence of all these erudite people. The result, intentional or not, is that this language doesn't convey ideas. It creates barriers.
I have a challenge to put to my fellow Fellows and to RSA staff. You have something important to say, and you want to engage with as wide a spectrum of people as possible when you say it. You have developed a vocabulary to help you in your work. That is fine. That is what vocabulary is for. So share your vocabulary with us. Help us to understand what you have to say, in all its complexity and specificity. Help us to join the conversation.
Because I’m pretty sure that social enterprise needs more than social entrepreneurs to get involved if it is really going to work.
Ben Bennetts FRSA is a business change manager with Hampshire County Council. He is also editor of the blog Power of Language, where a fuller version of this article first appeared.