Saturday, November 2, 2013

Logocidal Maniacs

In Kors' and Silvergate's book "Shadow University," they discuss a court case in which a young Jewish student, Eden Jacobowitz, had charges of racial hatred, or something to that effect, brought up against him for shouting "shut up, you water buffalo!" to a black sorority group that was drunkenly serenading his dormitory at 11:00 pm. There was an enormous amount of discussion and argument over whether or not "water buffalo" was a racial slur or epithet; a term which, to the Yiddish-speaking Jacobowitz, roughly translated from the Yiddish word behema, or "cow," a mildly insulting synonym for "foolish, unmannered or obnoxious person." The news anchor, John Chancellor, argued that the thought police on campus were threatening communication itself by extension, because if the unspoken premises of the charges were true, words no longer had agreed upon meanings, but could mean whatever the alleged and presumed victim wanted them to mean.

Chancellor's evocation of Orwell by referencing "thought police" is more prescient than it might seem to those who think, "come on, this is an academic institution, not some Big Brother." In his 1946 essay on politics and the English language, a defense of simple English against the creeping in of euphemism and abused metaphors, Orwell argues that if we aren't careful, sloppy language can create sloppy thinking, and that bad metaphors and meaningless phrases can lead us to come to bad, meaningless, or imprecise conclusions. If "water buffalo" can be a racially-charged insult, what other words might the young minority college student interpret through the convoluted lens of deconstructive ideology and critical power-structure analysis?

I've written about the problems of political polarization before, and it's true that much of the problem does have to do with how we solve our problems of cognitive dissonance. Do we assume the people we disagree with are seeing things differently, and one of us is incorrect, or assume we have identical experiences and the other side is simply evil? However, the proper interpretation of language, or the failure to properly define what we mean and agree upon definitions, can exacerbate or perhaps even cause these problems too. When I listen to popular pundits talk about how the Republicans are terrorists, or how Liberals hate freedom, it's not just an exercise in what I like to call "bad psychology," but it's also an attack on the agreed upon meaning of "terrorist," and a confusion of what "hating freedom" looks like. By example, imagine an anarchist debating a socialist about the proper role of government. As soon as the anarchist says that he's an anarchist and that he thinks government shouldn't exist, let alone monopolize healthcare, the socialist is in danger of using different interpretations of "government" and "anarchy" than the anarchist.

How anarchists think of Anarchism:

How socialists think of Anarchism:

There is a grain of truth to both, of course, but they're very, very different and separate ideas, and if an anarchist is implicitly defending the former and condemning the latter, while the socialist is completely ignorant of the former and assuming the latter because of imprecise and completely different understandings of what "anarchy" means, debate becomes impossible and you get more severe segregation of ideas.

Conversely, when the socialist defends the necessity of government and the state to correct for congealed imbalances of power, they might picture statism/socialism like this:

But when the anarchist thinks of state intervention, or even hear the word "statism," they might think of something other than what the socialist is describing:

Again, these are two very different ideas that have been blurred together. Without precisely defining terms and outlining ideas, arguments will be useless at best, divisive and counterproductive at worst.

Here's a very short list* of politically-charged words I think are being abused and mangled beyond recognition--killed, in my mind--by their use in ordinary political conversation:

1.) Terrorism

A terrorist is someone who uses lethal violence to inspire fear in a population in order to coerce that population to do something, or perhaps to not do something. A terrorist is a Mexican drug cartel hit-man leaving severed heads in elementary schools, not politician leveraging their decision-making power to further an agenda, or a hacker from 4chan insulting or mildly disrupting the Church of Scientology. You can call these bad if you'd like; that's an opinion. But to call it terrorism is an assertion of fact, and it's objectively untrue, and diluting to our ability to communicate.

2.) Racist

The connotation when someone is called a racist is usually that they are a racial supremacist, probably violent, of the Hitler variety. If someone asserts that they think the races might be genetically different, that is factually a racist statement, but it isn't an argument about racial supremacy or violence or anything that comes with the connotations we associate with the term "racist." It's a scientific assertion that might or might not be true, and it's truth is irrelevant to someone's opinion about whether it's good or bad. That's only a mild problem though, and is limited mainly to biology disputes. Eden Jacobowitz was called racist, a crime he said he would rather die than be guilty of, because what he said was reinterpreted. This is most common in the art of "deconstructionism," whereby an idea is broken down and taken in the context of who said it, at what time, and under what conditions such an idea might have benefited the speaker, before being ruthlessly shredded to pieces and discarded as selfish and evil. This is where we get strange words like "patriarchy" and "heteronormativity" from, which are, of course, just as vulnerable to deconstructive criticism as any other ideology.

Racism is generalizing skills and traits by race and ascribing them to that race. It is biologically unfounded (racism is false), but not morally evil, compared to, say, racial supremacy. Racism has nothing intrinsically to do with culture or religion. Let me say that again: racism has nothing intrinsically to do with culture or religion. Someone who criticizes Islam is not racist against Arabs. Similarly, someone who holds American culture to be inferior to, say, African culture is not racist against white people.

3.) Fascist

Closely associated to the abuse of labeling people as Nazis. Fascism is a specific and extreme form of authoritarian nationalism. It has nothing to do with gun control or abortion, or religion, though it might have an effect on these things. It isn't uncommon to see someone called a fascist for being too left wing or too right wing, when in reality, either side can be excessively authoritarian. Often times, some of the most outspoken opponents of Fascism and totalitarianism are themselves accused of being fascist (neoconservatives and Trotskyites in particular). One's economic ideas have nothing to do with nationalism or authoritarianism, intrinsically (though admittedly, the latter does tend to be correlated).

4.) Rape

Rape is forcing someone to have sex. It can happen to men, women or children, and it doesn't necessarily require penetration. What makes a word like "rape" complicated is how people define consent nowadays and its relationship to personal responsibility. For example, if a woman has several drinks, many feminists hold that she cannot give consent anymore. Therefore, any sex that happens after a woman drinks is de facto rape (this isn't extended to men, of course). Notice that we don't hold to this kind of reasoning when a drunk driver runs someone over; the driver is not only still held responsible, but is in many ways held to be more responsible.

Some of the more legally aggressive have gone even farther in taking away a woman's responsibility in the matter, saying that excessive power differentials take away a woman's ability to consent (rape), or that a woman who regrets sex might realize post hoc that she might not have been able to give consent, even if it seemed alright at the time (rape), or even that a woman who dressed attractively, flirted, made out with, implicitly consented to, and actively participated in sex, but perhaps forgot to say the magic words "I consent to sex!" repeatedly--because consent can be withdrawn at any moment--might legally and ethically be able to later say that they were raped.

Other misapplied terms like "rape apologist" and "rape culture" have come out of some of these misrepresentations and blurred definitions of rape. Suffice to say, American prisons and fascistic Islamic countries are something like rape cultures. Mainstream American society is not.

5.) Irony

This is a word that isn't being killed, but might actually already be dead. Hopefully, it will be possible to resuscitate the great word, but odds are slim.

Irony is when there is an incongruity between a statement or situation and the truth, particularly when there is a reversal of expectations. The Oatmeal does a much better job explaining exactly what it is than I can, but here's a short list of what irony is not (though some of these can be ironic):

- anything humorous
- poetic justice
- blatant sarcasm (especially if its repetitive and predictable)

--To be continuted--

*Other words commonly abused, in no particular order, include: conservative, liberal, Tea Party, empowerment, tolerance, safe, diversity, equality, communist, democracy, rights, freedom, faith, courage, religion, brainwash, dogmatic, and the various ____phobes (homophobe, Islamophobe, etc)

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