Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Word Game

Redefining words is fun.

You know what's even more fun that redefining words?

Changing or restricting their meaning so you can use them to silence opposition.

I've got three little words here that I want to look at today, but really, I could look at any number of them and the results would be the same. But I wanted to highlight these three, because they're usually at the forefront of the Right's war against language.

  1. Torture
  2. Misogyny/Sexism
  3. Racism/Prejudice 
(Okay, so that's technically five. I'm an English major, not a math one).

Let's look at torture first.

How do you define torture? Wikipedia, a source I don't use for academic papers but have no problem using on my blog (because I can fact check myself; if you want me to find actual sources, I'll have no problem doing that. I'm just lazy), defines torture as:
Torture is the act of inflicting severe pain (whether physical or psychological) as a means of punishment, revenge, forcing information or a confession, or simply as an act of cruelty. Throughout history, torture has often been used as a method of political re-education, interrogation, punishment, and coercion. In addition to state-sponsored torture, individuals or groups may be motivated to inflict torture on others for similar reasons to those of a state; however, the motive for torture can also be for the sadistic gratification of the torturer.
That's a very broad definition of torture, but petty spot on, too. Most everyone agrees on it, too. I say "most everyone" because it should be obvious that there are those on the Right who don't. Hell, they cheer about torture, that's how sadistic these bastards are. Of course, they've been educated to see Torture as having a very narrow definition - when I bring up torture, you probably think physical attacks like nail pulling, finger cutting, the iron maiden, the iron butterfly or the rack, among other devices.

How about things like trapping someone in a room and playing music really loud at them, and they can't go anywhere? What about dunking them underwater until they're scared they're going to drown, and then doing it all over again when they don't say what you want to hear? How about clamping them in uncomfortable and unnatural positions?

Obviously if you thought these were "torture" they're wrong. These are "enhanced interrogation techniques" - a relatively new phrase off the euphemism treadmill for torture, in use since at least 2004, if not slightly earlier. But that's just it - see, the use of "EIT" to split what we do from what others do is an example of what I'm talking about in this post: the redefinition of torture. Torture includes all of the physical stuff, but none of the stuff that we do. And we can convince ourselves of this, because we have split torture into "stuff we do" (e.g., "enhanced interrogation techniques") and stuff that others do (eg, "torture "). They're they same fucking thing. But because you've split the word, and injected a sense of "Othering" into it - those people torture, we don't - you've successfully redefined torture so it can be made more palatable for the masses in this country, who will never see it as such. And when we do point out what's happening - that EIT is just smoke-screen for torture - they can use that to silence us. Suddenly, because EIT isn't torture, objecting to means you want to coddle the terrorists (another word that's suffered this fate, arguably even worse, because it never had a clear definition to begin with that didn't include the United States Government in some form or another). You want to stick up for them, and suddenly, you're cast in the light of being a "terrorist sympathizer." Never mind that you're worried that what's happening is flat out torture - the word's been redefined, and been split to a narrow definition that suits the needs of those who want to silence their opposition and support torture.

Let's look at misogyny and sexism.

These two terms get thrown around a lot on the internet. Unfortunately, unless you're dealing with a feminist, the person who's throwing them around probably doesn't know what they mean and likely isn't interested in learning, since they've already decided on a definition. Sexism is misogyny in the same way that Prejudice is racism; it's passive form of discrimination. This one is really popular with the Menz; they take this and run with it, reading a strict and literal interpretation of the definition of misogyny - the "hate of women" - and using that to silence those who use the term to describe prejudice against women, which honestly, is another form of hate, just one less visible and far more insidious.

If there's a difference between the two, it's the fact that sexism is misogyny in action. Like prejudice is applied racism, sexism is applied misogyny. But it's never used in that terminology. They've been split in two separate categories, with misogyny placed at or near the same tier as racism and sexism given a pass as something "less evil" than misogyny. If you're not outright advocating that women who speak up should have their tongues cut out and raped until they're dead, then you're not a misogynist. You're just a sexist, because sexism is seen as something "less than" misogyny, when really, one can't exist without the other.

Like with torture, there's been an attempted redefinition of what sexism and misogyny mean. Like with torture,  it's caught traction in the main stream. Now, accusing the BroMenz of being sexist and misogynist opens the door them lecturing you on how the two are different, because they "don't hate women". This goes well beyond derailing and silencing; this is a tectonic shift in the definition of two words that are almost identical, with the difference being degrees of action. They've been split, like Torture from EIT, and successfully redefined.

And speaking of racism and prejudice:

There's no quicker way to get the dander up on the head of a White guy than accuse him of being racist. Nobody likes it, and when you do bring it out, the "race card" has been played. I experienced this when I was arguing against two libertarians; I made the claim that their philosophy only works for them, because both men were White. If they weren't, the system would only get worse, because if the current one isn't working for you and it's giving the outward impression it's trying to help (in the most self-defeating and counterproductive way possible), what does one that doesn't give a damn about you do? I was accused of playing the "race" card. Of course they weren't racists, I was told, because if they were, they'd be talking about hanging Black people.

There. That last line. What does that sound like to you?

It's not torture, it's "enhanced interrogation techniques." It's not racism. Racism is wanting to lynch Black people. It's not misogyny, misogyny is hating women. I'm not homophobic, because I don't hate gay people. It's not derailing, because I know what I'm talking about. It's not splitting the definitions or redefining them, because I have all the privilege to decide what they mean in the first place.

This focus on splitting the words from their definitions is all about what the words are not. It's what the word doesn't say; that's where they find the split. This is an incredibly postmodernist approach to language; it's got firm roots in deconstruction, and if you're not familiar with deconstruction or Derrida, you might not really know what's going on behind the curtain. It's what the word doesn't say that you focus on; they're taking that focus and they're shaving the that from the meaning of the word to give it as a literal a definition as possible. What they're doing is they're tearing the words down, and their using the way that the words break down and their privilege to silence opposition by reminding them that "this is what the word means." Not to give these people credit - I don't think they know, either. But the way they sever the word from part of it's definition is textbook deconstruction.

The best way to fight back is to retake the words and piece them back together. These new, quasi-Orwellian/Newspeak definitions (the full word with a quarter of the original meaning) have already caught mainstream traction. Racism isn't about banks charging Blacks higher interest rates for their loans. It's about wanting to drag them behind a truck and kill them. Misogyny isn't about telling women that they don't know what they're talking about and you do because you're a man; it's about wanting to attack women and this nebulous "hating women" phrase. Torture isn't about using psychological techniques like water-boarding, or playing loud music on end for several days to mentally break your mark. It's about forcing them into iron-maidens or breaking them on a rack - you know, stuff that's not even in use anymore. Homophobia isn't about wanting to punish gays or keep them from getting married or equal rights, it's about being afraid of gays.

You'll note that I'm using deconstruction. This is what happens when you get in the convoluted, mentally exhausting game of deconstructing linguistics. Words are vulnerable; they shift in meaning over the years depending upon their use, and language is always evolving. Language is not necessarily thought, but thought has a huge impact on language and how it's used. When you're taught that the fullest extent of thought is the literal definition, then that's what you'll use. That will impact your language, and how you use it. And you'll start to use it in other places as well, which includes deconstructing words to their basic core and then twisting that basic core around to match your own warped psychology (cf the word "choice").

None of this is of any value when fighting back against these kinds of people, because they wouldn't understand it anyway. It is important to know the psychology at work, though, and how they got to where they did, because it can be useful in crafting ways to rebut their claims.

I ended up loosing the "debate" against the libertarians, because they managed to derail it. Once I "played the race card," I was accused of seeing "racism everywhere" and "I never listen to myself talk, because if I did, I'd know that's what I was saying." I do see racism everywhere. And I do see misogyny everywhere, and I do see privilege everywhere. This is a fact of life. But of course, they don't, because of the way that they've gamed the meaning of those words, and twisted them to what they want them to mean by shaving off what the words don't explicitly say.

These words and their usage are mental buffers. They protect the individual from actually having to acknowledge that they do have privilege. They protect the person from seeing it themselves.

As soon as we can figure out how to fight back in this word game, we'll be able to undermine their positions. Unfortunately, I can't think of a way to condense this entire essay into a pithy, bumper-sticker one-liner that hits with all the impact that it should. Maybe someone out there can. Me? I'm exhausted.

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