Fighting the writing culture of the privileged

 

Tanoj Kumar Meshram

Tanoj Meshram

By every passing day of the writing journey, I am realizing that there exists something like a culture of writing and since it is a culture, it is embedded in a particular social context. Those who come from the privileged background with generations of history of writing (including a culture of reading the written material) often become the gatekeepers in the academia, publications, and media. They decide what is the correct way of writing which inter alia includes the subjective questions of style, format, presentation of arguments, clarity, organization, composing or even the way you frame your sentences.

I am not talking here about the problems of poor command over the language manifested by the mistakes in spelling, vocabulary, grammar, etc. which in the world dominated by computer-assisted writing and editing has largely taken care of. So, what is "normal", "standard", or "acceptable" in writing is decided by the privileged who have multiple generations of writing culture. Speaking in terms of social structure, these privileged gatekeepers could include whites, educationally privileged ethnic majority or minority, beneficiaries of caste system in a society like India or even a very few Bahujan middle-class writers or academics accepted or even co-opted by the privileged writing world because they were privileged to have the culture of writing in their homes and access to significant networks.

The normalization of writing culture of the privileged or taking it as a reference puts the new writers or early academics from the underprivileged groups such as Bahujans at a disadvantage. They have to make immense efforts to "comply" with the norms of privileged writing culture. This can not only lead to unbearable pain and discourage them from writing and academics, but the more serious tragedy is: it diverts them from focusing on the substance and forces them to focus on the form. The subject matter, the problematizing, the solution of the problem on hand, the crucial evidence, the imagination, etc. takes the backseat and what matters most is the form so that the writing fits into the writing "mould" of the privileged. The sense of achievement comes from not just by complying with the mould but by producing similar written products complying with the specifications of the mould.

I am sure that great philosophers and writers of the underprivileged would have found it difficult to get accepted or published by the privileged writing world. We remember how Mahatma Jotiba Phule was ridiculed in the 19th century by his Brahmin contemporary writer from Pune by name Chiplunkar. I am also convinced that much of the writing of Dr Ambedkar doesn't fit into such an academic mould of the privileged. Whereas caste discrimination stands at the core of the neglect (at least till liberals discovered their love for Dr Ambedkar in the context of increasing assertion by the Bahujans in the age of internet and social media) of his writings in the academic institutions, one argument which is often given to justify the exclusion was they were not "academic" writing, these are political or even polemical. And it is no coincidence that many of these leaders and thinkers wrote on their own terms and even published their own writings. The privileged publishers occasionally published them because some of them were helped by the fame they got because of their non-writing revolutionary work; the acceptance by the writing world was followed by the fame in the non-writing world and not vice versa.

It is therefore important to understand the differences in the writing culture of the privileged and underprivileged. Because the difference is often presented in the nicest forms such as gaps in style, format, clarity, etc. we don't notice the underlying tone of calling it mediocre or inferior written material. The underprivileged need to fight this writing culture of the privileged else generations of them will end up in learning to comply with the mould of the privileged wasting their time and talent which otherwise could be deployed for the solutions of the pressing social problems they and their communities face.

Writing is intimately related to knowledge production which affects not just current but future generations. The seriousness of the situation calls for the increasing social entrepreneurship by the underprivileged in the media and publishing industry so that their writers and academics can write on their own terms. One fort which appears difficult to breach is the academic fort where you might not have a choice when your term papers, theses, dissertations, grant proposals, etc. are evaluated by those coming from the privileged writing culture. This appears to be a long battle. We perhaps need a "critical writing theory" by the oppressed which not only challenges the existing norms of the privileged writing but also creates much inclusive writing space for the newly educated among the oppressed.

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Tanoj Meshram, an alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad, is a former civil servant and anti-caste social activist with over two decades of experience at a strategic level in government, education non-profits, and social movements. Currently, he is finishing his Ph.D. thesis in Social Policy from Heller School for Social Policy and Management, at Brandeis University, USA..