Some Language Is Worth Fighting For

I was in a debate on Facebook the other day about words and the way they should be used, and it got pretty intense. People were getting blocked and everything. I never seem to get anything like this on a discussion about actual politics. I’ve been yelled at for posting a picture of doughnuts and been blocked over my opinions on the Oxford comma, but never anything about politics. I need to up my game apparently. Anyway.

The crux of the argument came down to two conflicting points:

  • We shouldn’t stop using perfectly legitimate language just because some people with ill intent are out there trying to ruin it.
  • If you want to be understood and convincing, you’ll change your language to fit what has been agreed on by the majority, not what is technically correct.

This came after someone (jokingly) said that if they see a certain phrase they’ll stop paying attention to everything a person says after, and I’m not entirely free of this myself. If I see someone unironically ranting about SJWs, everything just starts sounding like trombones as if the adults from Peanuts are speaking. So I get that. At the same time, though, I have to point out the difference between a word or phrase that can have a negative connotation in certain contexts vs a word or phrase constructed with the explicit purpose of being demeaning or insulting.

So I found myself mostly in the first camp, though part of that is because I don’t necessarily believe the two things have to be mutually exclusive. But if for the sake of argument they are, then my position stands, because I admit to being tired of bending over backward for bad-faith actors and those with malicious intent. If a group of internet trolls tries to co-opt certain language to make it irrelevant, I don’t find it an appealing option to say, “Well, gosh, nothing we can do there. Might as well let them have it.”

This was at one point compared to the mentality of bigoted people who are set in their ways and refuse to change, but I’m afraid this perspective makes it seem like we have no power against ill will. That is, we’re just going to have to change our language every few weeks when the next group of trolls decides to ruin something else.

I understand the need to be an effective communicator, especially now. Communications and rhetoric was my major, and my focus was argumentation and persuasion. I’ve implemented this in everything from my volunteer work with political groups to my opinion pieces to random internet arguments, so I understand having to be careful with language so listeners will be more receptive.

But I also think that, for the best interests of language and effective communication itself, a line has to be drawn somewhere. This is where thinking the two arguments not being mutually exclusive comes in. If the definitions of words, or the public’s receptiveness to them, can be so easily ruined by some bad-faith actors, then we’re not doing our part to combat that.  We’re letting language become weak if we don’t, which in turn reduces our ability to make compelling arguments. If we stop using words every time a few people try to poison the well, we’ve given all our power away, and that’s not an effective way to communicate at all. It seems like something that might work in the moment, but a self-defeating tactic long term. (What could go wrong with giving all the power of language to those trying to muck it up on purpose?)

Still, back to context. There are times to fight to try to reclaim or save words, and other times where using the ones most people will understand without any confusion will be more effective. It’s one of the most important lessons in comms: know your audience.

But at the same time, we can’t acknowledge the ability of people to effectively render some words irrelevant or forbidden and then in the same breath act like we don’t all have the same power to affect change in language. Look at all the positive ways language has changed over the years, from how things have become much more inclusive for all people to the way many nasty words have lost their power against others. These things happened and continued to happen, and I can tell you it wasn’t due to the kindhearted efforts of trolls.

For my part, it’s been aggravating watching perfectly valid terms become almost unusable, especially on any topic that falls under the umbrella of social justice (which in itself is a term that many people are hesitant to use now). This hasn’t been an exercise in changing my language to best suit my audience; it’s been an exercise in frustration as I try to find out what words have yet to be spoiled. And at this point I don’t particularly care to keep giving them up.

Language will continue to change, and there are many legitimate reasons for it to do so. I just don’t think surrendering to malice should be one of them.

Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash

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