Politics and the english essay
This post was originally the final section of this post, but has been moved to a post of it’s own.
At this point, I’m going to switch from criticizing the ideas in Kavita Krishnan’s post to criticizing it’s style. I’m committed to being calm, charitable and civil when discussing someone’s ideas, not their style, and I get nasty about bad pseudo-academic writing. This post is meant to be harsh. You have been warned. George Orwell’s classic essay is a required reading for this section, although it’s a pleasure in itself. If you disagree with me, please specify whether you disagree with my “social science” criticism or my “literary” criticism, and try not to let your opinion of one affect your opinion of the other.
Kavita Krishnan’s essay is a tangled mess of incomplete ideas obscured by piss-poor writing. I’m going to ignore her turgid prose, as well her habit of using ill-defined words like “capitalism” or “patriarchy”, and focus on the way she presents her arguments.
Krishnan leaps from one half-baked idea to the next – she’ll start talking about “gender violence, sexism and rape culture [which] are thriving in the West” and, before the sentence is over, she’s blasting “global capital” for “redeploying patriarchal structures and attitudes in order to exploit women’s labour” in “Bangladesh or India”. She doesn’t think that, in a 4500 word essay, a discussion of rape and conflict over land deserves it’s own paragraph, which would inform the reader that a new argument is being made. At no point is it clear that she’s talking about three distinct ways in which capitalism could be linked to oppression. It isn’t even clear when she’s talking about sexual violence, instead of simple sexism. Due to this, I’ve had to explain arguments before rebutting them, instead of my usual practice of quoting the relevant passage. There is no “relevant passage” to quote.
Krishnan links ideas randomly, and without explanation. The opposition to same-sex marriage somehow proves that the “capitalist class” (whoever they are) is “invested” in “the control of women’s sexuality”. “Rape culture remarks” that are “arguments against the right to abortion” somehow “persuade women to accept the burden of housework”. Apparently, to hire women living in “patriarchal structures” is to “promote their insecurity and subordination.”
Krishnan’s standards for evidence are contemptible – she makes grand claims like “caste oppression and patriarchal anxieties about marriage and dowry are thus mediating the entry of women into the global labour market” based on the fact that some dalit women work for a lump-sum in specific regions in Tamil Nadu – and she doesn’t feel the need to qualify her statements with a simple word like “some”. “Imperialism” is obviously afoot – female labour comes from “former colonies”*. So clearly does “the fear of violence contributes to disciplining women into suitable labourers” that no proof is needed. Apparently, “the custodians of the political, religious, and law-and-order institutions” don’t just make stupid hurtful remarks, they are actually “powerful advocates” for “perpetrators of gender violence.” It’s unclear how they fit these new duties into their tight schedules, and Krishnan provides neither explanation nor proof.
This is more than an aesthetic issue. It is, of course, wrong to induce headaches in your readers with incoherent nonsense, but the problem goes deeper. As Orwell points out, the use of nice-sounding but empty phrases reveals that the writer is not thinking. Similarly, the mixing of nice-sounding but unrelated ideas reveals that the writer is not thinking straight. Here is the worst thing that I can say to a writer: Your job is to form new ideas in the minds of your readers. If you fail to do so you are, by definition, a shit writer. You have failed.
*As every school child knows, India was under the direct control of the President of the United States from 1857 to 1947, when we were freed by Che Guevara.