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Who are you patronising?

Andrew Steeds

There are two charges that are regularly laid at the door of anyone attempting to reduce an unnecessarily complex piece of writing and give it a clearer, simpler form: the first is that what is being done involves ‘dumbing down’ language and expression; the second is that it is ‘patronising’. The two charges are, of course, related.
The dumbing-down charge is routinely trotted out by people who have access to a relatively broad vocabulary and feel that there is a richness in that vocabulary that is being squandered in the pursuit of full accessibility. They have a point. Many people, including several who work in the same broad territory, worry that the effect of a too-rigid application of plain English is to strip writing of any of the things that actually make it worth reading. And they worry that the slavish devotion to a set of rules that are guaranteed to produce accessible writing might serve only to lower literacy rates rather than raise them – the idea being that, if you pitch your writing at the lowest possible level in order to make sure that almost everyone can read it, the danger is that that then becomes the literacy ‘standard’, which will in turn mean (on the law of averages) that some of the next crop of learners will fail to meet this standard, so that writing will have to be pitched lower to allow these learners to be able to read – and we’re into a spiral of declining standards and increasing illiteracy. The Daily Mail would have a field day.
Those of us who are sensitive to this charge recognise that the onus is on us now to produce writing that is not only accessible but also engaging and aspirational – in the sense that it gives a sense of the possibilities of language; it has to open doors rather than to close down communication. Producing writing that is accessible but functional isn’t going to inspire anyone to read, or to write, more.
The patronising charge is a more irritating one, and largely because the people who find a piece of writing patronising are hardly ever the people they feel will be patronised by it. Patronising is a charge people make on behalf of another group, and it thus doubles up as a wonderful opportunity for the person making the charge to demonstrate their sensitivity, their power of empathy. Most of the time, though, it’s idle, vacuous posturing. The people who use this term have seldom gone and consulted the people at whom the writing is targeted, and more often than not are merely trotting out a series of preconceptions that they’ve absorbed from somewhere else. It’s a particularly irritating term to hear applied to a piece of writing because there is no come-back to it; it immediately monopolises the moral high ground, accusing the writer of being politically and emotionally behind the game, because they are talking down to the reader from a position of implied superiority. And, of course, it neatly positions the accuser on the side of the angels, as someone who is aware of these things and democratically sensitive to the needs of others.
It’s a lazy term, trotted out with mind-numbing frequency by people who have most often neither done the research nor the analysis. Two examples. I routinely use a piece of writing produced by Age Concern in some of my training sessions. The writing starts with the sentence ‘As you get older, you are likely to feel the cold more, so both for your own comfort and to save on heating bills, it is worth considering what you can do to reduce heat loss from your home’. This sentence frequently attracts the ire of younger delegates, who take umbrage with it on behalf of older people they know. But, whenever there are older people in the training group, they invariably protest that they don’t find it patronising at all; they recognise this as the reality, and it therefore neatly presents the case for the rest of the writing.
But knowing that won’t stop the word being used. And the people who find that a piece of writing patronises young people won’t be young themselves, just as those who find writing patronises black people won’t be black themselves.
And that reminds me of the second example. In the ’70s and ’80s, everyone involved in teaching and publishing (I was involved in both) was desperate to find texts, stories, any kind of writing that would speak to young and mostly black disenfranchised students, who were under-represented (as they probably still are) in most of the textbooks of the time. Some fantastic community publishers were set up in inner-city areas, producing material written by local people, many of whom had never written or published anything before. Schools bought much of this material greedily, hoping that it would help them get across to these groups of learner.
Often, it didn’t. The reasons for this were unclear, but one suggestion was that a life people feel imprisoned by is not a life they want to read about. And an inspirational writer at a conference I attended (whose name sadly escapes me, but who I think might have been Ursula K Le Guin, citing the experience of a friend of hers) told a wonderful story about teaching English in an inner-city London comprehensive. The English department had bought as many new books for their black and Asian learners as their limited budget allowed and found, to their despair, that none of the books held any enduring appeal for the young people. Running out of options, the teachers raided the department store cupboard for whatever else could be used.
And one of the strange discoveries they made was that a book that they would never have imagined to have any resonance with these learners, had just that. That book was Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth, a book set at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain and about as far away as could be imagined from the day-to-day experience of those young people. But something about the remove of the book – the fact, maybe, that it involves somebody coming to terms with living in what feels a foreign land and establishing friendships, against all expectations, across racial and social lines – struck a note where more-contemporaneous accounts of cosmopolitan, inner-city life had failed to.
That’s one of the great things about writing: you can’t always predict how readers are going to react to it. That’s one of the reasons why trying to ensure a certain kind of response from readers is as forlorn as the attempt to guarantee universal access to your writing. What’s patronising, as well as dishonest, is to write something that you’re not engaged in, not excited by. Engaging and exciting are what draw readers in, ultimately, much more than readers’ ability to decode the words you put in front of them.