Language is portrayed as definitive. A word is a word and its definition is its meaning, except it isn’t. Just as people can see the same event interpret it differently, so can people can hear the same word and derive a different meaning. Our language is subjective but few people realise it, and even fewer realise the consequences. But it isn’t the words that cause this, but our emotional associations to them. Comprehending this is a first step to healing the divisions forming in our globally connected society.
If I begin a sentence with ‘Feminist’ I will polarise my readers, as the individual’s idea of what constitutes a feminist will direct how they interpret the rest of the sentence. They may think of a feminist as an intelligent woman who seeks equal opportunities with men or a simpleminded aggressive activist who seeks to punish men because of their own failings, but more likely it will mean something else entirely. The point is when someone hears feminist they have an idea in their mind what that means, and that will be alien to the dictionary definition as it is built upon real-world experience of feminists and the emotions which accompany that. If you identify with feminists you are going to have positive associations with the word. But if a group of aggressive feminists have protested something you support you might take a different view. The unambiguous dictionary definition dissolves and with it a clear way to convey a thought.
Political jargon faces the same problem. People form strong emotions about ideological words regardless of whether they know anything about the ideology. We can observe this in word capitalism, which is perceived as an oppressive and unfair system by many. However, capitalism encompasses what most people aspire to. Want to run your own business, set up an independent coffee shop, be self-employed? That is capitalism. Do you think you should be paid relative to how hard you work and your qualifications? Capitalism. If you use: Facebook or subsidiary Instagram, Apple, Google, Amazon. You are engaging in capitalism by choice. Capitalism (the right of individuals to own companies as opposed to the state) isn’t what most anti-capitalists have a problem with. They dislike how wealth tends to accumulate in the hands of the few. But that is a global governance issue; however, it is easier to create a negative association with a single word than consider the real complexities of the problem. But this stifles debate as to when people decry capitalism they aren’t being clear, even in their own mind, about what they are upset about. And if they aren’t clear in their own mind how can progress be made?
The same is observed in other political terms: communism, socialism, Conservative, Labour, Democrat, Republican. In the 21st century, politics has superseded religion as people’s primary badge of identity and the party’s evangelical supporters are inadvertently training themselves to form instantaneous reactions to words. If Tory/Labour is said at a Labour/Conservative conference jeers will fill the auditorium. The cheering or jeering doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t move the debate forward. Rather it makes members release endorphins, making those attending feel good. It is the same rush that supporters at a football match feel. The group is reinforcing its identity by training members to have the same emotional responses to words. Consequently, they are creating their own interpretation of language, completely alien to those not in their social group and wholly divisive.
By becoming emotive about political words rational thought is diluted. For when people hear the name of their opposition, even when the opposition proposes something positive, they dismiss it with anger. They hate the party irrespective of what they are doing. If you ask someone why they hate Tories/Labour they will make up a reason why, but the real reason is that it conflicts with their identity. An idea they have in their head of who they are, but more importantly how they want other people to perceive them. To disagree with is someone is rational, to hate is to be indoctrinated. This excess emotion is carried over into non-political words. when people are outraged about certain language us it isn’t because that language is bad, but because of what they have made that language to be in their head.
Think of swearing. Swear words are just vibrations in air or pictures on a page. They don’t intrinsically mean anything. But humans have trained themselves to associate vibrations and shapes with rudeness. Someone might swear at you in a foreign language and you wouldn’t realise. But if someone told you to ‘fuck off’ you would be incensed – depending on whether swearing is common in your social group. Evidently, words even in a single language don’t have universal definitions, this is increasingly problematic in the globally connected world, as certain small vociferous groups are distorting our society and owing to their prevalence, and coordination, on Twitter it appears they are significant in numbers, but they aren’t. This effect is observed in the perceived popularity of veganism. However, less than 1% of the UK’s population is vegan. But this 1% is very loud and consequently, they appear to be a large movement, much like those who oppose the use of certain words.
These small groups driving the gentrification of language are confused by their emotions. They hear a word like ‘illegal-immigrant’ and it makes them upset. So much so that they deem the term as racist and attack those using it. However, an illegal immigrant is a definition: it is an immigrant in a country illegally, nothing more. The words and dictionary definitions are unambiguous. But these moral hikers have attached a negative emotion to the word because it conflicts with their identity – they want to be seen as altruistic and welcoming. Thus they insist on using new words like migrant or asylum seekers, but these words are not appropriate they mean something else. This softening language dilutes its meaning and reduces our ability to communicate because words that have an exact definition are muddied into a confused agglomeration of terms. In a few years, pensioners will be called post-work age individuals, as people won’t like the idea that they are over sixty. There will be an uproar over inviting people over for afternoon tea because some won’t like the implication that they drink tea – a vestige of colonialism. “Going for a run” will be taboo because it marginalises those without legs. Our language will dissolve into crud and with it our ability to think and communicate.
Writers have a duty to uphold the language and not censor themselves. However, words will always carry emotions leaving us with a conundrum. We can write emotively for our target audience to talk their language and empathise with their viewpoint, reinforcing the echo chamber. Conversely, we can make an effort to avoid using words that trigger strong emotions and with the intention that our work can reach all enclaves of politics and that it might help to heal the divisions forming in our society. However, with that, we risk tight writing turning into unreadable incomprehensible prose. I’m not saying people should use contentious language for the sake of it. But rather to be aware that changing a word doesn’t change anything about the attribute.
All of us need to realise that everyone has different definitions of words in their minds. They are based on real-world experience and the emotions that bring. Thus, when someone speaks, it is not your interpretation of what they say that matters, it is what they mean to convey. We should, therefore, be willing to view our own interpretation of language critically and to take notice of words which make us emotive and attempt to figure out whether that reaction is rational or conditioned. Only then can we be sure that when we are in disagreement with someone it is the problem that divides us, not language. find yourself disagreeing with someone make sure you are disagreeing about the same thing.