How to write about abstract topics that impact our lives every day (for example: citizenship)?
It’s all too easy to write technical prose directed at experts, moving quickly from Aristotle to Agamben because everyone in that expert community knows these names.
What’s lost in the process is a visceral grasp of the power of abstractions. When my rights are removed by law, I am open to all forms of predation. If I’m assaulted as a result, the abstraction leaves a mark. When used to oppress, the law isn’t just a line in a book; it leaves bruises in its wake. There has to be a way of conveying the gut impact of ideas, ideals and institutions.
On the flip side, these abstractions are refinements of intuitions we have by virtue of being creatures occupying a cognitive niche. Fairness is both a legal principle and a teary face in every elementary school playground.
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My solution to this problem - and it will a long journey of unlearning decades of adult socialization - is to embrace 'childlike simplicity' in these explorations. Or to use a phrase that I hear often: 'explain it to me like I'm five years old'. EL5 for short. Why? Let me count the ways:
Conceptually better: it's an art and a craft to present an idea as if it's both obvious and easy to grasp. Especially when introducing a new set of ideas - the ease of understanding de-risks engagement for outsiders, which is most people since the idea is new. If the initial premise of your argument is obviously obvious, then your conclusions, however unpalatable, are worth taking seriously. What's even better: sometimes the obvious is (not so obviously) wrong, which is where creative work is done. Refuting the obvious is even more powerful than asserting the obvious.
Better UX: Writing for other adults - especially other experts - takes enormous amount of knowledge for granted. The ivory tower imposes its authority through the expert's daily invocation of its awesomeness. EL5 on the other hand takes nothing for granted - we have to build the castle brick by brick and that's a humbling act. EL5 is particularly useful for a group where I can't assume the background knowledge that others in the group take for granted. Makes it much easier to establish common ground and rise up together.
Beginner's Mind: We are all jaded by the daily deluge of information and the inevitable pessimism of a world that's taken many turns for the worse. Beginner's Mind recognizes those dangers but sets them aside - or rather, 'brackets' them - and says we can always do better. Plus it's more fun.
All of us have an intuitive idea of EL5 and can point out when someone else is flouting it.
At the very least it means 'no quotation without explanation.’
Let’s take the concept of citizenship. We could go top-down and define it so:
A citizen is a member of a political community who enjoys the rights and assumes the duties of membership. — From the Stanford Encyclopedia.
So many difficult terms in just one sentence! What do we mean by:
These terms have precise meanings in the courts, but those meanings trace their origins to bodily intuitions.
Consider children in a public playground. There are adults on the sidelines, but they are invisible. Every child in the jungle gym instinctively knows that:
All of them have as much access to the equipment as anyone else.
Any child who blocks others from using the equipment is a bully
The entire extent of the playground is available to all the children to run, jump or walk.
Small disputes can and should be dealt with quickly and fairly but bigger disputes invite the ‘god in the machine’ aka adult supervision.
That the above rules only extend to the playground fence - beyond it lie dragons.
It’s precisely this bodily feeling of:
freedom of movement
within a bounded territory that lies at the bottom of being “member of a political community who enjoys the rights and assumes the duties of membership.”
The playground isn’t only a metaphor. Any attempt to transform subjects into citizens - as one might desire for the millions of subjected migrants across India today - has to evoke that visceral trace of autonomy and authority. But how?
Or to start from the opposite end: confinement is such a powerful reminder of subjection that there’s a line of bodily consciousness connecting African Americans in prisons today to their ancestors who were enslaved. The state understands quite well that the playground and the prison are both theaters of learning, one good and the other evil.
I know I didn’t make it to EL5 in this article but perhaps EL18? Also, if you like these newsletters, why don’t you share them?