This evening I spent an hour or so reading an interesting article on the denial of incest in the middle-class. The topic touches on sociological and psychological work, but in reality it surveys the development of the concept of childhood from the 17th century, something that became particularly important for middle-class families.  Well into the article, however, I stumbled upon the following.

“It would not be appropriate to conclude even a cursory look at the role played by sexual abuse in the history of white middle-class ideology without noting that the otherwise inexplicable crusade against childhood sexuality is a crucial component in the effort to constitute bourgeois subjectivity as the successful suppression of natural animalism and passion by the intellectual and rational powers, in effect creating a hierarchy whereby impulses are restrained by civilized reflections. The fully developed, mature adult middle-class subject must manifest the ability to sublimate sexual energy into productive work or at least defer its expression until the social-sanctioned relationship of marriage. This facet of bourgeois subjectivity, it has been noted, laid the groundwork for middle-class fear and loathing of cultural “others” who are supposed not to insist on (or not to the same degree) this hierarchy of forces within the subject.” [Elizabeth Wilson, “Not in this house: incest, denial, and doubt in the white, middle-class family,” Yale Journal of Criticism 8 (Spring 1995).

Those of you who lack PhDs in English are excused if you do not understand more than half of this. This paragraph contains important, even compelling ideas. Yet it comes across as a prime example of “humanitese,” a language used by academics in the humanities to make their disciplines as jargon-laden as a social science field report. The very academics who pride themselves on their control of language, who often cherish well-turned phrases and praise stylistic excellence (and whose departments are often given the task of teaching undergraduates to write) turn out these rotund, German-syntaxed monstrosities.

As a check on my own prejudices, I opened up an online readability tool.

[]  This offers scores on both the Fleisch Kincaid grade level (so, what grade level would be necessary to read a text? 3 = 3rd grade etc.—the higher the score, the greater the difficulty) and the reading ease score (the lower the score, the more difficult to read, e.g. comic books come in at about 90). The 143 words in the selected paragraph supposedly required a grade level of 27 and the reading ease score was -14 (that is, about 20 points more difficult than a legal document).

Of course, I cannot simply criticize without trying to make the world a better place. So, I turned my hand to re-writing the paragraph, retaining all the information. Of course, I’m not Elizabeth Wilson, and do not claim to be as smart as she, so my blunt prose may have lost something. Still, here is my version.

[Rewrite 1] Before I conclude this brief review of ideas used by the middle-class to deny children’s sexuality (contrary to ordinary observation of children), I should note that it plays an important role in middle-class concepts of the normal individual. Middle-class intellectuals conceived of the fully developed, mature adult as successfully controlling low or animal-like passions through reason. He or she will channel sexual drives into work, or at least reserve these desires for lawful marriage. This element of the middle-class’ conception of itself laid the groundwork for fear and distrust of other social and cultural groups that supposedly lacked this same level of self-control.

My paragraph comes in at 103 words. I’m still not particularly successful. My grade level score is 17 (at least a PhD in history could get it) and the reading ease comes in at 19. Still kind of obscure, but only for the vast majority of English-reading people.

If at first you don’t succeed…here’s another attempt, this time without the effort to capture every nuance of the author’s argument, but still reflecting the key points of the paragraph.

[Rewrite 2] So why all this effort at denying that children are sexual? The answer lies in the middle-class concept of self. Middle-class people control animal passion through reason, saving those physical drives for work and for marriage. This sense of self also laid the groundwork for middle-class views of other groups (the poor, immigrants, and so on) as lacking the same control over their own passions.

65 words, readable by a grade level of 9. Reading ease, 58.

Could I do better? Yes, with some effort. But, the point here is, all of us in the humanities need to do much, much better.

2 thoughts on “Humanitese

  1. Great example of the difference between writing for an elite group of initiates and writing for a general reader. Early in my career an academic mentor told me my writing was “too journalistic,” and he asked for longer sentences with more semicolons. At the time, I gave him what he wanted.

    • I recognize that at times we have to talk about topics that are difficult to understand. So, I don’t really believe we can move all academic writing to a high school grade level, and I’m pretty sure that would not really be useful. But, I also agree with your point that we make decisions in favor of more complex forms because of the prestige or implied intelligence of that kind of language. And then there is all the theory.

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