Meditations upon Language

There is a certain frustration in not being able to express thoughts in a clear, unadulterated, perfectly understood form. This is impossible. There’s no point in whining about it, only in trying one’s best, anyway.

I run up against the limits of common language fairly often–at least once a week, if not five or ten times–when I find that there exist no words exactly suited to my purpose. A graceful word that sounds perfect given the cadence of a sentence may carry an unwieldy baggage of political connotations, or the word that perfectly expresses a particular notion may be grammatically awkward and ungainly. I generally aim to both produce pleasant writing and avoid overly-charged political language, but there are times when this is impossible. Ethnonyms are particularly prone to politicization. Should I refer to the nomadic or formerly nomadic descendants of Indians who’ve lived in Europe for several hundred years as “Gypsies” or “Roma”? “Inuit” or “Eskimo”? “Indians” or “Native Americans”? For each of these, you can find members of the relevant group who prefer Term A and dislike B, and members who, likewise, prefer Term B and dislike A. And no matter which term you pick, someone out there will assume that you are making a political statement about those people.

Heck, I used to know a man who preferred to refer to himself as a “Negro.”

In general, I try to stick with the most commonly known term; if two terms are equally known, I tend to use both. “Roma” I assume is fairly obscure, whereas “Native American” is clear, if clunky. (“Indian,” while actually the term a small majority of Indians preferred last time I checked, has the unfortunate confusion factor.) But there are times when innovation could be useful. “POC,” for example, is a mere three letters long and well-known. But it is severely tainted by politics, making it unsuitable for anything attempting even a vaguely neutral stance, or anything aimed at a non-leftist audience. Then I am left with some clunky phrasing, like “people who aren’t white.”

It would be lovely to be able to write posts that appeal to everyone, but words the left uses to distinguish its writing are anathema to the right, words used on the right are likewise anathema to the left, and neutral territory is generally regarded as simultaneously inadequately right and left.

Moderatism is possible, but neutrality is nigh impossible, whether I want it or not. So posts have their audiences, and the language selected accordingly, along with a heavy dose of my own bloody-mindedness, with the inevitable result that the language will never be perfect.

For example, Nick B. Steves recently expressed dissatisfaction with the use of the word “fascism” to denote generically authoritarian regimes in the post, “Increasing Diversity => Fascism.” I agree that “fascism” is really an unideal word. Unfortunately, “Increasing Diversity => Lots More Laws” or “Increasing Diversity => More Authoritarian Regimes” just doesn’t have the same cadence, and makes for an awkward title. (Also, the post was originally composed as a direct response to the sorts of people who’d inspired it.)

(There are those who argue that one should not write with an audience in mind, but that writing should instead be some sort of pure emanation of your soul/id/creativity/whatever. This is bollocks. All language exists in order to communicate something between the sender and the receiver, whether that be spoken language or written language. If I wanted to write something where the intended audience is just myself, I could, and I would write it in my diary and keep it there instead of posting it on the internet. Once something is put out there, it exists to convey a message to someone outside of myself, and therefore needs to be able to do so. If it cannot, then I have failed.)

I try to aim for an “intellectual but friendly” tone, but the tone has changed over time, which occasionally leads to confusion, especially if posts get shuffled around in the schedule. “Once a Political Position Becomes Popular, it has already won,” is one such post. Attempting coherence:

Mainstream political positions change over time. For example, the majority of people once opposed gay marriage, but now the majority support it. Two hundred years ago, being pro-slavery was a fairly mainstream political position, while believing in full racial equality was far outside the mainstream. Today, these positions have reversed.

People who are advocating a political position that is gaining popularity but not yet dominant or has not yet won all of its objectives often get very worked up about the fact that any vestiges of opposition remain, leading to increasingly strident demands that everyone need to toe the line and fall-in with the new position.

Of course, in a world with more than one person in it, there will always be someone who disagrees about something; in a country with 300+ million people, you can find tons of people who disagree with you! You can even find people who think they’re telepathically communicating with the CIA. The mere existence of people who disagree with a position does not mean it is not dominant.

How do we know whether a position that only a minority of people agree with is “winning”, in the sense of becoming steadily more dominant?

Look at who is advocating the position. Movie stars, popular musicians, Cathedral leaders and the “popular” people, at school and on the internet. Thought leaders shape and influence other people’s opinions; people want to look and act like elites.

People often make a big deal out of how brave they are for taking a popular position. There has been nothing particularly “brave” about being pro-gay rights for the past two or three decades; no one has been sued for being willing to bake a gay cake. Neither is Caitlyn Jenner “brave.” It is taking the opposition position that has cost people jobs, freedom, and money.

—-

Sometimes the problem is long-windedness increasing the noise:signal ratio. “Transsexuals Prove that Gender is Real,” may have been one such post. The TL; DR version:

  1. The idea that “sex is biological, gender is a social construct” is bollocks. Sex=gender.
  2. All trans people I have known in real life have obvious chromosomal or hormonal conditions leading to improper gender development.
  3. I suspect this is true of the majority of trans people.
  4. Trans people don’t actually act on the radical feminist claim that gender is some random, made-up thing invented by the patriarchy to oppress women. Rather, they pick a gender and then try to actually live like it.
  5. Note that this does not require you to agree that a trans person “is” a particular gender; it is merely asserting that they are trying to live as one.

I’m sure there have been some other things that were unclear or inelegantly or improperly worded, though I can’t think of them off the top of my head.

In the meanwhile, have a lovely day.

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9 thoughts on “Meditations upon Language

    • “it exists to convey a message to someone outside of myself”

      “unwieldy baggage of political connotations”

      The use of certain words can reveal one’s POV and political positions. How often and for what purposes do we need to reference people as POC? Do we ever see the use of POC in contexts other than as victims or as an entitled group?

      As you pointed out there are transitions in words and ideas. Certain words and ideas become unacceptable and to use or reference them will place you on the “outside.”

      The use of certain words allows us to choose sides (which is a good thing). Steves says he does not like to see people using fascism the way “our enemies” do. Are you a part of “our”? If you continue to use words in an unacceptable manner will your status as a part of “not enemy” be in peril?

      I value your informative and expositive writings such as the previous one on the Ainu. However, I like posts like this one even more, and since you are open to expressions of dissatisfaction, I am dissatisfied with your tagging of this post as naval gazing and semantics. Imagine my distress after reading this post and finding all sorts of profound and important stuff in it then I see that you tagged it as naval gazing. If you continue to do this to this reader, I am going to demand some sort of trigger warning.

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      • I can’t tell if you are joking or not. (What’s wrong with semantics?)

        The use of certain words can reveal one’s POV and political positions.
        This is true. I often don’t want to convey an explicitly political position–take the meta-political or neuro-political posts. These don’t work if I sound biased toward one side or the other.

        Plus, I don’t like it when people make assumptions about what other people believe based on a few bits of language use, (and then attack them based on that,) instead of engaging with the person’s actual argument or belief. Too often I see someone trying to express agreement with a position, but they aren’t up on whatever the hippest new term is, and so get a bunch of people yelling at them. For example, someone attempts to say something sympathetic about “hermaphrodites” and then gets three pages of people yelling about their trans-phobic language. It becomes less about the speaker’s political position and more about everyone else using the poor unfortunate as a punching bag to signal their own moral superiority.

        In a more recent example, a long thread was spawned on a recent Slate Star Codex post when someone complained that Scott’s use of “biological male” or “biological female” might offend some readers. In reality, Scott is pro-trans people, probably agrees with much of their political agenda, and endeavors to be extremely nice and non-offensive to pretty much everyone, so to get offended at this, someone would have to be idiotically striving for something to get offended about. (Not to mention that claiming that penises can be “female” or vice versa, and then getting offended at people who claim that biologically male and female people exist, is A. nuts, and B. will put one in conflict with virtually the entire planet. The claim to be “offended” over such a matter should not be taken seriously by other people, and yet it is.)

        How often and for what purposes do we need to reference people as POC?
        Any time I am using the unwieldy “non whites.” Or when referring to the ideas of others.

        If you continue to use words in an unacceptable manner will your status as a part of “not enemy” be in peril?
        I like to think that I’ve come across a corner of the internet where SJW-style language tactics are frowned upon, and I may be judged, for good or ill, based on the merit of my ideas.

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  1. I am not interested in attacking anyone for their political beliefs. If I say that you seem to support position A and you tell me that I have got that wrong and you don’t support position A then I can accept what you say.

    I think we don’t express ourselves in a clear and unambiguous manner on a lot of political positions so I usually read with “what do they really think” in the back of my mind. I will give an example because maybe I am not making it really clear. When someone, say President Obama, says we need to have a conversation on race, he doesn’t really mean that. I hear people saying that and people writing articles and throwing in the “we need this dialogue on race” line. I don’t believe them and that is what I mean.

    My point on POC was that whenever that term is used, the opinions have already been formed. It is used 99% of the time to complain about victimization or to claim privileges or special consideration.

    “a corner of the internet where SJW-style language tactics are frowned upon”

    The Dark Side is your safe space?

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    • Haha, yes.
      Frankly, people ’round these parts are far more polite and intelligent than SJWs, and they are much more comfortable with things like reality, statistics, and evolution. SJWs are vicious and tear down everything they can get their hands on, including civilization itself.
      The Dark Side: safer because not trying to kill me.

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