Stop gatekeeping the humanities

| Staff Writer

As a friend annoyedly turns a page in “The Price for Their Pound of Flesh” and I work my way through a theory assignment, we begin to discuss how much bigger the audience for this material would be if it were written in a way that everyone could access. The main question we sought to answer: What’s the point of making it so hard to read if it’s a concept you want everyone to get? To be clear, she loved that book, and I enjoy Judith Butler as much as the next person, but our conversation quickly turned to the question of why almost every insightful text we read takes hours to get through and how, had they been worded differently, the same idea could have been developed in a far more accessible way for all audiences.

If my friend and I weren’t college students, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t have read those texts at all. This is especially important considering the specific texts we were reading are presumably for everyone; or, at least, everyone would benefit from being exposed to the information they contain. The history of the commodification of the Black body is obviously something that is, as expressed in “The Prince for Their Pound of Flesh,” an idea hoped to become a household conversation, so it’s worth considering who has access to reading and understanding the conversation proposed. Similarly, the social construction of gender is expertly explored by renowned theorist Judith Butler, but is her target audience only other scholars? If the goal is to encourage people to be more inclusive, to think more progressively and to generally have a better understanding of why racism, homophobia, genderphobia, etc. are faulty and ill-informed behaviors, then why is the best information on these topics being written in a way that is most logical for consumption in a college classroom? 

This isn’t an attack on authors enjoying their craft or displaying their knowledge of their fields. But when it comes to certain information, accessibility, not excessive vocabulary, should be prioritized. The famed “For Dummies” series does this by taking subjects like philosophy, law and sociology –– topics generally thought to be hard to understand –– and putting them in layman’s terms for all audiences to enjoy, regardless of whether or not they are college-educated or have specialized in the field. So why can’t all modern social ideas be proposed this way? Non-college-educated people are not actually “dummies,” and many could read and understand the theoretical texts in question, but most people, regardless of educational status, would prefer important texts be written in a more approachable way. Some of Butler’s and other scholars’ arguments are probably going to be a bit more complex for the general reader to grasp, regardless of how they’re worded, if said readers aren’t familiar with reading theoretical works. However, unnecessarily confusing language only makes those difficult concepts that much harder to get. This ultimately results in gatekeeping information that the masses should and are intended to know.

At a time when participation in activism and social movements is incredibly important, there is still a stark disconnect in knowledge and understanding due to who relevant material is being written for. Perhaps it’s time to challenge the idea of life-changing information being written exclusively for scholars.

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