What Words Mean

In the words of Hamlet ‘words, words, words’. So, language is sort of my thing. It kind of comes with the territory of being a writer. Naturally, I think about the nature of language and how we use it. Language is how our brains translate our inner thoughts into outward communication. Language is one of the ways in which we exert power in the world. Now, with the Internet breaking down all the barriers, most people have a chance to voice their thoughts. That’s a double-edged sword that we’re still living under. So, let’s look at words and how they function in the modern world.

So, I have this strange linguistic dichotomy in me. Say I’m in a conversation with friends and one of them uses the wrong term, using stagnant instead of static for example. I might catch the mistake and mention the correct word. They’ll apologize and we’ll all move on. However, sometimes it’s worth noting that using the correct word doesn’t matter. So long as the two people in the conversation know what is being said, then as long as meaning is conveyed it sort of doesn’t matter how the language is used.

On the other hand, there are a few words that I care about that I demand be used properly. Like ‘political correctness’, like ‘ethics in game journalism’, like ‘feminism’. To me, using these terms correctly matters, even in casual conversation, and I’ll explain why. Look, I know how this looks. It looks like I’m about to start a rant. The truth of it is that I’m maybe about to start a rant.

So, let’s start with ‘political correctness’. Political correctness is such a nebulous term. Breaking down the words it simply means ‘the state of correct about political things’. It’s a word that means nothing in a somewhat ontological sense. So naturally, anyone can make it mean anything. People using the ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’? Why it’s political correctness gone mad. Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act won’t let me harass minorities? It’s political correctness gone mad. I could go on but if you’ve been around the block you might be familiar with this argument. I’m not going to go on to much of a tirade as I’m sure you can find a comedian who can preach better than me about ‘being PC’.

So, clearly, people think that political correctness is about policing language and curtailing harmful phrasing. Political correctness is about language and language is my home turf. As I mentioned earlier, words are thoughts transformed. Words are always playing a negotiating game between a person’s private thoughts and the world outside them. You might have noticed that we’re in a bit of a burgeoning new age of civil rights. My country, Australia, is currently in the midst of a debate over whether same-sex couples can marry their partners. Now think about all the words that have been used to hurt those in the LGBT community in the past. As the tide of popular opinion changed, we stopped using the words that hurt because we knew that people in our social circles would be reminded of the times that those words hurt them personally. That’s political correctness.

Words have power because of the power we give them. You may think that saying the N-word devalues it if you use it enough. However, that ignores the history of the word and how it was used to hurt. It would be similar to having a friend whose parents and grandparents were shot in front of them. You’d be kind of cagey about mentioning guns in their presence. So, political correctness can mean ‘respecting the past traumas of oppressed groups’. Puts a new spin on political correctness gone mad.

I want to leave this piece today with a totally non-conscientious topic: the definition of feminism. Some people on the Internet note that egalitarianism or humanism would be a fairer term. Here’s where I disagree with those people. We have words for a reason. So that people can understand one another. If someone wants equality between men and women, and the way they phrase it is ‘I’m a humanist’, I would look at them and go ‘That’s great that you place a higher importance on the human rather than divine or supernatural forces but we’re kind of discussing the gender pay gap’. In that instance, there has been a breakdown in communication. 

The dude above (let’s call him Dave) believes in the right thing but using the wrong terminology in our conversation means that we have to halt the conversation to explain to Dave the Humanist that humanism and feminism are two very different movements established hundreds of years apart and that both words have a long, complex history that is linked to those words in common parlance. 

Or imagine that Dave had joined the conversation by saying ‘I get that you call yourselves feminists but wouldn’t calling yourselves egalitarians be fairer to men’. The response would be something to the effect of ‘Dave, we’re fighting an ideology that is commonly referred to as patriarchy due to how it inherently men and men’s opinions over women and thus the feminist movement named itself to combat this idea of patriarchy. I get that you’re new to the conversation Dave, but most of us are fairly entrenched in this term because of the legacy it provides and the recognition of the term in common parlance refers to women’s rights. It can refer to issues that men experience due to patriarchal structures of gender but we’re kind of focused on other issues and you insisting on us changing our language is really slowing down the conversation.’ By now, Dave is tired and lost. Dave, you could’ve just asked someone whose opinion you trust about why the movement is called feminism. Or you could’ve Googled. So long as you don’t run into TERFs and MRAs, you should be on the right track. Think for yourself, David. There’s lots of academic work on the subject that you could’ve read. Read some Judith Butler. You’ll be healthier for it.

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