fourth third#yoyo blog post of February I’m going to take a brief look at something that I find really interesting: language policing. I don’t know if that’s the correct term or not but, hey, who’s gonna tell me I’m wrong? I have a few opinions–which I will, of course, share with you–but I don’t have any firm conclusions on any of this. One day I’ll look more closely into this, but for now I invite you to read this hastily scribbled post and comment below.
Before I start I’ll offer up a few things to consider. Firstly, language is ever evolving. Words may come to have a common understanding that is very different from, even the opposite of, what was originally intended. Does this mean that everyone using the word incorrectly is obliged to change, or that the word should change? Language is about communication, it’s our means of understanding one another: if we share a common understanding of a word is that what matters, or does it mean that we’ve broken our language.
Secondly, the ‘death of the author’ concept leaves ample room for meaning to be entirely in the eye of the beholder (i.e. the meaning of a text is entirely determined by your interpretation of that text). This is compelling, but problematic–do we entirely throw away what the author intended to say? We are surrounded by people who love to claim that they didn’t mean what we thought they said. Who’s right and who’s wrong?
As you’ll hopefully agree, there is no simple answer here. Furthermore, the three examples below–at least in my opinion–offer completely contradictory arguments for and against.
This is one that I’ve seen in (online) conversation a few times and have no idea whether it’s a widespread thing or not. The premise is simple: a parent cannot ‘babysit’ their own child: babysitting is a temporary task, parenting is a full-time occupation. The use of the term ‘babysitting’ by a parent (as in: “I can’t come out tonight; I’m babysitting the kids”) is seen as an indication that the parent views looking after their kids as a part-time task.
But can we determine that only on the basis of a word? What if the parent’s interpretation of ‘babysitting’ is simply having some time where their focus is entirely on their children (any parent will know that parenting may be a full-time job, but it has to find its place among all ther other daily tasks such as cooking dinner, going to work, paying bills, etc, etc)
Can the parent use whatever term they choose? Or does their choice of term unconsciously betray their attitude towards parenting?
I’m using autistic simply because the best example I’ve seen of this particular case was applied to autism. Again the premise is simple. We’re very used to unwittingly describing people in terms of a given condition: “That’s a disabled person”; “That’s an autistic person”; “That’s a depressed person”.
The problem with a construction like that is that we end up defining the entirety of a person by a single condition. People have multiple aspects and qualities; defining them by just one is inevitably limiting and applies an unconscious label that instantly plonks them outside of the large group of society. Using something like: “That person has a disability”; “That’s a person who has autism”; “That person has depression” instantly reverses things. Suddenly we’re talking about *people* and describing the condition as just one of potentially many aspects of their lives and personalities.
You’ll probably guess that this is one area of language policing that I wholeheartedly applaud, as it helps to govern the way we not only treat, but think of, other people, particularly those who may already be disadvantaged in some way. (The first example I’m less comfortable with as I’m inclined to believe that people should be able to describe themselves in any way they see fit–however, there will almost certainly be very worthwhile exceptions to that).
Here’s where I contradict myself somewhat, as this example is very similar to the ‘babysitting’ one in some ways. There a number of other words I could have used (such as ‘cuck’) but ‘SJW’ is good as it’s a formerly legitimate term (meaning ‘social justice warrior’) that has been co-opted in the last year or two and now serves as particular signifier.
I won’t go into the history of the term, but the premise here is that someone using the term ‘SJW’ in a non-ironic sense is saying far more about themselves than they are about the person who is supposedly an ‘SJW’. They’re essentially outing themselves, with a 99.9% degree of certainty, as someone who, at the very least, will have sympathies that won’t seem out of place among various far-right groups that are flourishing of late.
A similar example is ‘gamergate’. Any gamergater will claim that the movement is ‘about ethics in games journalism’. By now, everyone else knows it’s more about things like protecting fragile male egos from sharing their formerly ‘safe’ space with women. In short, the definition has come to mean something entirely different than that claimed by the would-be definer.
In these instances the particular language being used is a clear and deep signifier as to the person using it, and it’s particularly interesting (and requires an entirely separate and probably much longer post) when you start to look at how certain words and terms have become cemented within certain ideologies (both left and right). This is where language really starts to serve its purpose as a short cut for communication, and where we also begin to see words starting to dominate specific contexts and take on different meanings than originally intended.
… in summary
As you’ll have already gathered, there’s no conclusion here. At least, not from me. I’ve given an example where I believe the user potentially gets to define their own language, and the recipient may want to exercise cautious judgment; one where I believe the recipient would be entirely justified in correcting the user; and one where I believe any claimed definition on the part of the user is typically invalid.
Let me know if you have thoughts, examples. or even any further reading, via the comments below.