One of my ongoing concerns has been what words to use to characterize the subjects of my posts. When I speak of the right, are they “alt-right” or “white supremacists,” as I’m reliably informed by the left? And when I speak of the left, are they “SJWs,” “woke” or “progressives”? On the one hand, none of these words have sufficiently defined meanings to preclude the requisite wiggle room to disclaim membership. On the other hand, what starts out as a badge of honor for one side morphed into a pejorative when seized upon by the other.
I remember someone dismissing a post because I used the phrase SJW, which obviously meant I was some right wingnut. So what word or phrase should I use? Berny Belvedere parses the dilemma at Arc Digital.
A few months back, we ran a sharp piece by Nathan Allebach on the difference between liberals and leftists. He started his article with a brief meditation on language:
Nothing fuels online discourse like fights over language. New terms will popularize in a subculture then trickle into the zeitgeist until they lose universal meaning, if it was ever there to begin with. Terminology such as “weaponize,” “virtue signal,” “identity politics,” “moral panic,” “bad faith,” and “cancel culture” gets diffused so widely and unsystematically that it feels impossible to pin down what someone means without a litany of qualifiers and caveats.
Allebach describes how terms start out in a particular subculture only to lose their capacity to convey a shared meaning once they graduate into discourse ubiquity.
He’s right, this often happens—and it’s worth wondering why. Why do terms like cancel culture exhibit “meaning leak” as they travel from the underground and into prominence? How come virtue signal starts off as a meaningful concept but eventually loses its way?
Is this like the “n-word,” where a black person can use it but a white person can’t? Or is this different, a phrase sent out into the wild where its meaning becomes so diffuse by wider use?
The terms don’t forfeit their coherence merely by being widely used—they lose it on account of being widely used in a particular context: the context of political contestation.
What happens is the broader discourse, being basically an arena of ideological conflict, a theater for the forever culture war, provides warring factions an opportunity to superimpose their preferred meaning onto terms in a way that suits their objectives.
Berny is on to something. A descriptor that’s valid at its positive start that explodes in the hands of the enemy when its used in a negative way in the “context of political contestation.” When an “SJW” speaks of “woke,” he means the word in its most wonderful sense, a word of enlightenment and righteousness. In the enemy’s hands, it sounds like a curse.
None of this is mysterious or all that deep. It’s obvious that in an ongoing discourse arena of political contestation, the terms that one group uses to advance its positions (“the other side is all about identity politics”) get challenged and even repurposed against them. Again, this is expected.
Indeed. Orwell explained this in his seminal essay, Politics and the English Language.
The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.
Even Oxford math don Charles Lutwidge Dodgson nailed it.
When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
Contrary to the demands of sensitive readers, I can only use words for the purposes I use them, and can’t reinvent my lexicon to suit the personal sensibility of every random reader. You don’t have to like my word choices in the heat of battle, but Humpty had a point, “which is to be master”? As long as it conveys the idea, must there be some tacit agreement on the precise definition?
The more important question is whose definition is right—and for that, like always, you’ve got to look at the reasons and arguments put forward by each side for their preferred conceptualizations.
Berny has a point, but it falls short of one pervasive problem: there is no precise definition of the many vague words and phrases that arise with alacrity these days. Cancel culture? Identity politics? Virtue signalling? Each conveys a general idea, but without the defined parameters that distinguish “right” definitions from wrong. Still, without words to convey ideas, they elude discussion and criticism. Me and Humpty ain’t gonna play that game.