Intersectionality and Input

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

Of late when I’m bored at work, like I suspect millions of others, I get embroiled in window-shopping. Glued as I am to a keyboard all day, my browsing has recently turned towards the deep rabbit hole that is ortholinear keyboard layouts.

I won’t go into the details as they are not important — suffice to say an ‘ortho’ keyboard is one where the keys are arranged in neat rows rather than ‘staggered’ like a standard QWERTY keyboard. The way the story goes is this: typewriters needed staggered keys because the metal levers that pushed the letters onto the page needed space to fit under the keys, so through a form of early ‘skeuomorphism,’ hardware designers adopted the same layout for computer keyboards. The story concludes that this is is not ergonomic, in fact it’s the opposite, it makes the user fit the machine.

That story is one of a number of articles of faith in the various internet discussion fora where this stuff matters, and in the case of the QWERTY layout it seems unarguably true. But there are other such articles of faith with less certain provenance. In this thread you can see commenters talking about the “weird sideways movements” or “weird stretches” that QWERTY layouts force you into as they advocate for the ergonomics of ortholinear board layouts that eliminate such apparent contortions. I have never seen a link to any sort of source for the implied claim that sideways stretching is a problem for fingers (in fact the experience of having fingers leads me to think it’s not really a problem at all) yet it’s an idea that is repeated so often by a small subset of ‘ortho’ fans that it has acquired the air of veracity amongst them.

I saw something similar in Reddit posts and YouTube videos about learning Japanese. There is a noticeable prevalence in the r/LearnJapanese subreddit of something called ‘input’ and its often implied opposite, ‘output’. The theory goes that input (ie hearing and reading) is far more important than output (speaking and writing) for language acquisition. You can see the idea laid out with some nuance and perhaps more importantly some references in this video.

But some Redditors take it to heart in an undigested and simplified form, asking strange questions like “When should I start outputting?” and giving strange answers like “I’m skeptical about the benefits of outputting”. Other examples include:

These are genuine questions that seem to arise from learners’ anxiety about learning. They are trying to come to grips with a shock familiar to (I think) anyone who has ever tried to learn a second language as an adult: the fact that reading, writing and speaking are different skills that we bundle together artificially under the word ‘language’, and one acquires them at different rates. But they are also, like “finger stretch”, an article of faith.

This time, however, there is a trail of references to follow. The term ‘input’ seems to have come from academic work done in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Stephen Krashen, and which he is still developing. I don’t know anything about Krashen, or about Linguistics as a discipline, or language acquisition as an object of study. But I do know that academic fields rarely unite behind a single theory, and that regardless of Krashen’s multiple awards and his extensive bibliography, there will be significant debate about his ideas if you know where and how to look.

To be fair to Redditors, that debate is reflected in Reddit threads about input, though it is rarely in the most upvoted comments. The deceptive simplicity of Krashen’s idea has given it a life of its own beyond the walls of the ivory tower. You don’t need a degree to understand it, but the problem is you don’t need a degree to misunderstand it either. Admittedly, the stakes here seem super low. So what if a bunch of weeaboos on the internet restrict themselves to trying to learn Japanese by watching anime while avoiding trying to speak the language? Who is that hurting?

Terms like ‘input’ break through into the mainstream from the academy all the time. Probably the most high-profile example from recent years is “Intersectionality”, which was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in a law journal in 1989. Intersectionality exploded amongst campus activists, the left-wing blogosphere and social liberal policy wonks in the mid-teens. Like ‘input’, I think it’s an attractive concept because it’s so simple — forms of discrimination intersect, meaning that different people have different experiences depending on the different identity categories they belong to.

There are other reasons for its extramural success. It appeared in a space that had hitherto been dominated by Marxists, who argued all discrimination was the product of capitalism, or post-structural theorists, who argued that power and privilege were more nuanced than simple structural categories implied. Intersectionality is in one way just a simple upgrade to mid-century liberal identity politics, giving a new name to what Frances Beale called “Double Jeopardy” in 1969. It also came at the right time: it’s an attractive theory in a neoliberal epoch that places the individual at the heart of all political questions. It reflects the current conceptual obsession with the individual while reclaiming it as a ground for progressive politics. And it did so in a package that was so simple that anyone could use it without reading a single academic article.

But like ‘input’, you don’t need a degree to misunderstand ‘intersectionality’. And like any other academic idea, it has its limitations which are hard to understand if you haven’t read a lot of other theory. Responding to its success, Crenshaw herself has said that Intersectionality is not a “grand theory of everything”, but that

If someone is trying to think about how to explain to the courts why they should not dismiss a case made by black women, just because the employer did hire blacks who were men and women who were white, well, that’s what the tool was designed to do. If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, it’s not like you have to use this concept.

One of the major unacknowledged problems of intersectionality as a ‘grand theory of everything’ is that it can actively work against political solidarity. It’s based on the same structural critique of power that liberal identity politics is based on: the idea that there is something called “society” that distributes power along axes of class, gender, race, sexuality and (more recently) cis/trans. It is easy to form solidarity with those on the same ‘end’ of one of these dichotomies, although as both Beale and Crenshaw have pointed out, these solidarities can create their own exclusions.

Although intersectionality offers a way out of this bind, as applied by the internet at large, it means that everyone’s marginalisation is unique to the complex intersection of their own relations to power. In other words, everyone’s marginalisation is unique to them. Where liberal identity politics operated in part by forming communities of similarly marginalised people, intersectionality is most often seen in declarations of difference. How can intersectionality help to create political solidarities when its most basic claim is “you don’t and cannot understand my experience”?

The problem with simple-yet-powerful ideas like input and intersectionality is that they make their way out of the academy because they are simple but have the veneer of academic heft. They are perfect for a digital polity that privileges speed over quality, brevity over complexity and gloss over content. The people who invent them have the broad and deep knowledge to understand their flaws and they are tested by rigorous debate within fields, but the people who grab them and run with them are often just after a simple way to say something with gravitas. All too often the debate and the critique doesn’t make its way out of the academy with the same urgency as the original idea.

What’s the ‘so what’ here? What do we do with this idea? It’s a simple thing to say “read things more carefully, think critically, and don’t take anything at face value” but that position reeks of academic privilege. The academy is just a series of paywalls and it always has been. You have to pay to be there, pay for access to the books and articles and the ideas inside them, pay to be given the opportunity to develop the vocabulary required to understand them and the skills to read widely in a literature and make the connections that enable critical thought. More importantly you need time to read, digest, and read some more. These things are not even close to equitably distributed.

This phenomenon is more complex than “critical thinking good, internet bad”. It is about privilege, power, and access to ideas, the simultaneous utility and exclusivity of privileged vocabulary, and the fact that simplicity, utility and quality are rarely correlated. The walls of the Ivory Tower are steep and forbidding. Can the advocate of ortholinear keyboard, input in language acquisition, or intersectionality be blamed for not scaling them? I think not.

But there is more to this story. At its heart is an epistemological question, which is, what is truth and how do we know it when we see it? Who gets to say what is ‘good’ knowledge and why should we believe them? What are the various uses and abuses of expertise? I want to continue this discussion in a future post on academic paywalls and the weirdness of peer review, and the ways that these contribute to this ‘problem’. And if I don’t go too far off-track with that post, I’d like to finish up by thinking about the problems of simple ideas and the demand that ideas be easy to understand.

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Nick Irving

Nick Irving

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.