“Words Have Power”
Thinking about a cliche that is nonetheless correct.
Since words have been a topic of discussion of late, why not one more post on the subject? Also, because a blog runs in content it seems a better use of the words I wish to spill to make some content in the form of a post rather than in the comment sections of more than one thread.
I will digress for a moment and note that there was a reader who used to get annoyed at me for doing what I am doing now, which is writing follow-up posts to further explain myself. I always thought it was weird that he found this offensive, given that it strikes me as inherent to the nature of the medium. I will say that I can understand, to a degree, that someone might think it unfair that I can elevate a comment thread to a main post as it allows me to put my argument front and center, while readers are confined to the comment section. But again, since a blog needs content to continue to exist as a blog, this seems a legitimate process. Further, I have always thought the fact that the authors of this site read and interact with the commenters to be a sign of respect, even if the back-and-forth can sometimes get a bit contentious.
At any rate, several comments, most notable Michael Reynolds (in multiple places but especially here) and also Mu Yixiao took issue with the phrase “words have power.”
MR specifically notes:
No, words do not have power. Ideas have power. Words are the tools we use to express ideas. Words have definitions, they do not have power. Words have only such meaning as we choose to give them and must be understood within context, sometimes simple emotional context, sometimes within the context of more complex ideas.
To which my inner fifteen-year-old says, well, duh! Or even: no shit, Sherlock!
But I expect my inner fifteen-year-old usage of words might not be taken as especially good argumentation (perhaps even as offensive), so I will try to revert to dude in his fifties, although more just blogging dude than academic dude.
In all seriousness, is not the above (e.g., ideas and context) not inherent to the notion that “words have power”?
Does anyone think that when that phrase is deployed the person doing the deploying is asserting that a certain arrangement of sounds is magical? Clearly not. Does anyone think that I was suggesting that using words is like the casting of runes? I don’t think so.
Look, I fully allow that words merely as words have no inherent power.
But there is no denying that saying certain words to certain people in certain contexts will almost certainly get me punched in the nose.
There is no denying that there are words that I should definitively not say in a meeting lest I risk my professional standing, if not my job.
I mean, this is obvious, is it not?
Words have power, but of course they are linked to ideas and context not to mention time, place, relationships, and mutual understandings.
I guess I find it kind of amazing that people can assert that words don’t matter and then proceed to argue about how words don’t matter, using, you know, words.
Back to MR’s comment this morning:
Let’s all decide to call cancer, sunshine. Do we still mean a deadly disease? Yes. Did switching words make chemo any less necessary? No. The power is not in the word, the power is in the meaning, the idea. In this example the idea remains cancer no matter what word you use.
We do not disagree about this.
But this is also not what we are talking about when it comes to something like “enslaved persons” or, to use another example that MR noted in a different comment, “Oriental.”
All of these words, as linked to racial and historical issues, are not about mere definitions.
Yes, cancer by any other name would still be a dreaded disease. No argument there.
The goal of using a term like “enslaved person” is not simply about definitions, it is about getting people to think differently about a topic. (And, again, I have no strong view on that specific debate, but I still find the intent to be vital to understanding the overall discussion of words and their importance).
The reason that “Oriental” is seen to be a term in need of replacement is because of, well, power. Asia was considered “the Orient” because it was east (which is what oriental means) of the UK. The Prime Meridian runs through Greenwich not because it is logical, but because the British Empire ruled much of the world at the time. To call Asia the Orient was a way of noting that the world revolved around Britain. That people in Asia might not wish to be defined in such a way is not unreasonable.
All of these conversations about what is the proper way to discuss different people groups is about power. In US society, “white” was long considered “normal” (if not the definition of “American”/the group that doesn’t need to be given a designator) and so other groups needed labels because they weren’t the norm.
I think everyone know this.
The n-word (which has power over me, because I am not comfortable typing it) was clearly a power play. Calling Black men “boy” was a power play. “Coloreds” was a power play because it was a differentiator from whites who don’t have a color, dontcha know.
Is any of this really in dispute?
Words have power, but rather obviously not in a vacuum.
I mean, sure, ideas are where the real power lies, but since the way we humans express ideas is via words. So, if one prefers words themselves may not have power, but since they are the conveyances upon which ideas travel, it seems hardly inappropriate to state that words have power.
But if one prefers: ideas have power and ideas travel via words (and exist in a specific context). But, that is pretty clunky.
Look, if words (or their usage/the ideas behind them) didn’t have any power, why the hell doesn’t anyone on this site care how they are used?
If words were inconsequential, then what difference does “slave” v. “enslaved person” have? Why worry about Latinx?
And look, clearly none of this fixes everything associated with a given set of injustices. And the realignment of word usage hardly makes an immediate change. But since how we talk about things affects how we think about things, it seems rather clear that language matters.
Indeed, in some ways that it is very directly a way that words, as words, do have power because the words we use shape the way we think about the world we inhabit.
FWIW, I think most of the dust up with Michael is because he seems to think his point, which is a legitimate and interesting one, is the only point necessary in this debate. He doesn’t appear interested in thinking about any of the other points being raised but simply keeps returning to his original one. (Sorry, Michael, but that’s my impression.)
Words have power. Some words are more powerful than others If he were around today, you could ask the renowned Edward Everett what he thought of Lincolns brief remarks. Fortunately, one doesn’t need to:
“I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
I think this is interesting for two reasons.
First, to my mind it values the historic derivation of words above their present day meaning. The derivation of words is interesting (to some of us at least) and can spur important and insightful conversations. But calling people out based on the historical derivation rather than today’s common usage is just, as you put it in a different context, a power play. An attempt to one up and wrong foot people not “in the club”.
The second reason it is interesting is because it illustrates the Euro-centric view of, well, everything. American and Europeans are endlessly searching for reasons why we are unique, whether uniquely bad or uniquely good. How many Asians do you really think give a sh*t that the countries they collectively call “The West” in turn collectively call them “The East”? I’d say it’s ludicrous and pedantic but it’s really just a fad started by virtue signaling busy bodies and all that entails.
Are you ready to speak out against China’s name for itself, Zhong Guo? It’s usually translated as the the innocuous sounding “Middle Kingdom” but in context it means “the most important kingdom” or “the most powerful kingdom”. Should all the people of the world whose ancestors were raped and pillaged by the Middle Kingdom (including the Europeans back in the days of Genghis Khan) start calling for China to change its name? Or if, like Japan and Britain, their descendants got their own back centuries later and were just as savage, cruel and barbaric as the Middle Kingdom, should we call it a draw?
I read that after Wendy Yoshimura, a Japanese-American, was arrested with Patty Hearst in September 1975, she objected to being referred to as “Oriental” on the grounds that the word made Asians, particularly Asian women, sound exotic. That was nearly half a century ago.
Oriental pears have become Asian pears.
@MarkedMan: ” The derivation of words is interesting (to some of us at least) and can spur important and insightful conversations. But calling people out based on the historical derivation rather than today’s common usage is just, as you put it in a different context, a power play”
At what point does the derivation become historical? Is there a pull date, as on a carton of milk? Can I call a Pakistani a “wog,” because the fact that it’s based on Golliwog, a black-faced minstrel doll, is all in the distant past and now all we know is that it means darker-skinned people from the subcontinent? Why should anyone get upset, since it’s current meaning in my use is strictly anodyne?
Or now that we’re talking, what about what I will call the N-word out of respect (at the very least) for our host? It’s considered terrible because it’s the way that slave owners referred to the — shall we say? — enslaved persons. But that’s all ancient history. We don’t have slaves anymore, so clearly it can’t share that historical meaning, so why would anyone get upset at its current use, if all we mean by it is black people?
@MarkedMan: “Are you ready to speak out against China’s name for itself, Zhong Guo?”
Perhaps you are unable to see the difference between policing one’s own speech and attempt to control someone else’s. I could try to explain it, but really it comes down to (what should be) the first commandment: Don’t be an asshole.
This is the crux of the disagreement for me. It’s one thing to assert that words have power. It’s quite another to assert that intentionally changing words in a top-down manner will cause people to think differently or act differently.
It seems to me the entire basis of the argument is flawed. I’ve asked several times now for evidence that top-down efforts to change words alter societal attitudes or behavior, at least in the way proponents intend. So far, nothing, it’s just been a repetition of the “words have power” catechism as if it’s self-evident that deliberate efforts by small groups of self-appointed advocates to alter language will actually change the way people think and act.
And in this example, we have people who have declared that the word “slave” is an inferior word because it supposedly denies the humanity of enslaved people. But is that premise even true? Of course, no evidence that it is, we’re just supposed to accept it and switch to the word this group of advocates wants us to.
This gets me to the second problem which does have to do with power. Namely the power bout who gets to control language and which words to use. This is the social engineering aspect, the conceit that a small group of priestly advocates understand the meaning of words better than society, and encourage the common people to adopt the “correct” terminology. It’s an idea that suggests that the normal and emergent process of language changing over time naturally through the interactions of millions of speakers is not sufficient and that we ought to engage in social engineering and get people to “think differently” by convincing or compelling them to use the language we think is better. That’s all folly IMO.
You bring up “oriental.” Well, how did that change from being a normal word for a very long time to being, at best old-fashioned or at worst, downright racist? Was this the product of elite intervention in the language to socially engineer the proles to think the correct way? Haven’t we simply replaced oriental with “east” or “Asian” in the vernacular which are better – how exactly? Are people less racist toward the peoples and cultures of the eastern hemisphere because “oriental” fell out of fashion?
Let’s see some evidence to support these claims.
@wr: I think you are being deliberately obtuse here. The current meaning of the examples you give are insulting, there is no need to look backward in its derivation.
A better example would be dexterous. Let’s say that you used that word to describe an argument Steven made. Am I justified in lecturing you on how that term debases left-handers, since it derives from “dexter” meaning right handed, and necessarily equates left handedness with ineptitude? Should I bemoan how exhausting it is to constantly have to educate you on just how offensive that word is?
Yes. Exactly. But isn’t “calling out someone else’s speech” exactly what I’m complaining about? Just who falls into the category of “someone else” and who is it okay to call out and demand admission of error from?
The entire field of advertising. Finding ways to describe banal things that evoke an emotional response to change behavior — usually to buy a product, or overlook corporate misdeeds.
I do want to take exeption to what Michael says here:
He is putting the cart before the horse. What is an idea without the words to express it? The idea is important but if one can’t put it into words it is nothing more than a fast fading, amorphous, indefinable dream. Words are what give ideas shape and meaning. They are the motive force propelling an idea into fruition.
I would think of all people, Michael would understand this. All of his story ideas would be for nought without words.
This, a thousand times. If you’re telling a story, you want the precise words to render your meaning crystal clear.
There’s a rich scientific literature on linguistic determinism. And linguistic relativity.
One might also look into the work of Lera Boroditsky, Michael Frank, and/or Gary Lupyan.
Though a bit dated, Steven Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought.”
Newberg and Waldman’s “Words Can Change Your Brain.”
And now for the caveats:
1) Some of these are more directly relevant to the topic at hand than others.
2) My posting of these should not be interpreted as complete endorsement.
3) None of these present results from a randomized controlled trial in which participants are assigned to the “you must use ‘slave’ at all times” vs. “you must use ‘enslaved person’ at all times” groups. So if that’s what you’re looking for, best that you move along.
Also, and because I get annoyed when people mischaracterize the position/arguments of others…
I know of no reputable scholar who contends that modifying our language is THE ONE AND ONLY tonic for our social ills.
Nor do I know of a reputable scholar who contends that such modifications are the primary means by which to achieve social progress.
Nor do I know of a reputable scholar who contends that sideline-sitting is preferable to putting skin in the game.
So, please, can we stop with that nonsense and engage with the actual arguments put forth by actual, nay well intentioned, people. Pretty please.
Advertisers use existing words to try to convince us to buy stuff through emotional and cultural association. They do not insist that some words are bad or morally problematic and then try to get us to use different words instead for some kind of educational or ideological purpose.
I grow weary of the “please prove the very obvious and well studied things that I will never accept the evidence for” requests, so I do what amuses me.
Also, “Death Tax.” Completely changes the way people think about inheritance and dynastic wealth. The world is so full of examples of language changing how people think that it’s ridiculous. You have to be either amazingly unobservant (which I don’t think our friend Andy is), really committed to a bit, or blinded by ideology to not see an effect. Or having a complete brain fart.
This. So this. So 1000 times this.
I don’t recall anyone making that claim. AFAIK, no one here has claimed that any scholar believes that modifying language is the one and only tonic. But clearly, some believe it is “a” tonic. The premise that it is a tonic is what I believe we’re debating.
Here, too, I don’t think anyone has claimed that scholars are saying this is the primary means. But they are being promoted as a means.
Again, I don’t think anyone is suggesting that any scholar believes sideline-sitting is preferable to putting skin in the game. I’m not in any position to judge how others prioritize their preferences, I can only observe what they do and advocate for.
I think you are making an apples-and-oranges comparison here.
Using the phrase “death taxes” is not changing the words “death” or “taxes” to have a different meaning or to substitute different words that claim to express their meaning more accurately or in a kinder way.
Applying existing words that everyone understands together in novel ways is not the same thing as declaring that one word is bad and substituting it for something else. You can put all kinds of words next to “taxes” which changes the meaning of the resulting phrase – that is something different than changing the words themselves.
An apples-to-apples comparison is declaring that “death” has bad connotations and denies humanity, so it shouldn’t be used anymore (especially by correct-thinking people) and we should use “deceased people” instead to recognize the humanity of the recently departed.
So the question then becomes, how does “deceased people taxes” change how people think compared to “death taxes.” This is the relevant comparison to slave vs enslaved people.
And then we can compare that to “estate taxes” after we’ve fixed the problematic word “estate” so the final form of that phrase becomes: “taxes on the assets and possessions of deceased persons.” It just rolls off the tongue.
And then we can get a new word for taxes, which is too innocuous and hides the reality that it’s government theft (a redefinition that some Libertarians have been beating their heads against for years).
This is a fun game, but I would much rather just use the terms most people understand and let language evolve naturally, as it has always done, instead of attempting to engage in dubious semantic social engineering, which is really impossible to control to begin with.
Dr. T, I am once again impressed by your patience and dedication to pedagogy.
Came across a nice example of … something. “She gave birth and got married.” and “She got married and gave birth.” Are exactly the same word and logically have the same meaning. But common usage implies temporal sequence which adds implication to the first as opposed to the second.
And audience matters. I wrote a comment at WAPO today in which I mentioned “Goebbles”. At WAPO or here, I assume pretty much everyone knows who I mean. Writing a letter to the ed for my local paper I’d have added “, Hitler’s propaganda minister,”.
With respect (and I do respect you), I think you are being obtuse. Moreover, I think that you are being overly precise when it suits you and overly general when it suits you. Of course, those are merely my perceptions, no doubt clouded by any number of things (including a tender hamstring that has me rethinking an upcoming marathon).
Now, as to your recollection of what people have articulated in these various threads, I offer up this:
Now I’m sure that you could parse this in a self-serving manner, but I hope that you won’t.
[edited to clarify: this is a quote from one of Andy’s earlier comments.]
I don’t think this holds. One key thing that some folks seem to ignore in this discussion is the social position of the people being referred to. Death is equal opportunity. Yes, there are individual and group differences in the whys, how soons, etc. But at the end of the day, everyone dies.
Slavery is not so equal opportunity. Nor is social marginalization. etc… Hence, advocates suggesting that we take special care in the words that are used to refer to such people.
What about the insistence that left of center party be called the Democrat Party instead of Democratic Party which was the term I had heard and used all of my life?
Indeed. And besides “death tax” you have “pro-life” and substituting “climate change” as less scary than “global warming”. Apparently Republicans think words matter. The Kochtopus paid out a lot of money to come up with and test these words.
Bear with me here.
I’m 62. When I was a kid it seemed that everything in media was a Western. “Gunsmoke”, “The Rifleman”, “Bonanza”, “For a Few Dollars More”, “Once Upon A Time in the West”. Zane Grey was still a best selling author. And the concept of hanging was everywhere. Just look at the number of times it shows up in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. It is central to the whole movie. S0 – on Halloween, when people decorated their yards, it was tombstones ala Boot Hill, skeletons, and… nooses. Nooses and tombstones were easy and instantly iconic.
Fast forward to the present. We realize that a just and fair society should value each individual regardless of their race or religion, their ability to walk or talk or see, or who and how they stick their nether bits in or on or next to various other people. Every person has value and their own personal story and circumstances should be given weight. Oh – and the noose has somehow become inextricably associated with racism. Right, wrong or indifferent, that’s just a fact and we have to accept. I absolutely understand why. There is nothing more casually horrible than that an actual profession in the United States was “lynching photographer”.
Ok, with that background, here’s my point. A couple of years ago there was a woman in the Bronx (? Queens?), two years older than me, who decorated her little front yard for Halloween. Tombstones, skeletons, and… a noose. Oh, how the mob descended on her. I read about this in The NY Times. The NY F’ing times decided the story of this “obviously racist” woman was worth an article, pretty much condemning her to showing up as a racist in google searches for the rest of her life. What did they report about her? That she was a white woman. That she was 62. That she lived alone. And that she had the gall to deny that she had racist intent and refused to apologize.
What happened to “understanding each person as an individual”? What happened to “everyone has worth”? I honestly think that most of the members of this commentariat have roughly the same value system, although we come from very, very different places. Does any one of you really think that the attacks on this elderly woman, living alone, came from people who really practiced what they preached? That each individual has worth? That each story deserves to be listened to?
I think it is the opposite. I think that every noble cause gets hijacked by the mob. There is a reason why old JC saved his anger for those who dressed up in sack cloth and ashes and went about beating their breasts. Over the course of millennia we, as humans, have made ever so slow progress in becoming a more fair and just species. It is not the obvious racists and facists that do the most harm to this progress. It is the mob, the purity police, the clingers-on who turn every noble thing into an opportunity to one-up themselves, to gain status by co-opting the good and turning it towards a tawdry exercise in blowing themselves up. That’s why I am passionate about this. Every day, the people who believe in something need to fight against those who only sound like they believe in something, who use the same words to inflict the same old injustice on whoever happens to fall under their gaze.
Ok, I now see what you’re getting at. While I stand by the gist of what you quoted from a previous comment of mine, I can see how the “believing that the key to social change ” part would lead a reasonable reader to the interpretation you arrived at.
So let me rescind that. I don’t actually think that most advocates believe what we’re talking about is “the key” to social change. Further, I’m not a mind-reader, and I think it’s unfair of me to presume anyone’s level of commitment to this idea. That doesn’t change my skepticism of the idea itself, however.
I think that’s a fair argument, but I do think there is a distinction between the meaning of phrases and changing the meaning of individual words.
And I’m fine with words evolving to meet changing norms. That’s how it’s supposed to work! That’s what happened with the history of words used for mentally disabled people. “Retarded” started as a word designed to “take special care” and replace words considered to be pejorative at the time – then it evolved into a pejorative. Mentally disabled could be a pejorative in a decade or two. Who knows?
What I’m skeptical of are attempts by third-parties to short-cut this process or impose new words, especially when there isn’t any pejorative or negative context. That’s the case, in my view, with “slave” vs “enslaved person.” The justification for this change is that “slave” supposedly denies the humanity of enslaved people. Ok, what is the evidence for that? To me it just sounds like someone’s opinion. Maybe in time, the bulk of English language speakers will change from slave to enslaved person. And I’ll follow along if that happens. But to me, that is just the normal evolution of language, it’s not an attempt to get people to think differently by trying to control language.
@Andy: “So the question then becomes, how does “deceased people taxes” change how people think compared to “death taxes.” This is the relevant comparison to slave vs enslaved people.”
No, it’s the change from INHERITANCE taxes to death taxes. It’s a change from thinking about the taxes levied on an heir who has done nothing to earn t his money verses taxing someone who is unable to hold onto his wealth because he’s dead.
Damn, that was epic. I agree completely.
@Andy: “Namely the power bout who gets to control language and which words to use.
And here is the crux of the argument. In the end, all right-wing (and “libertarian”) complaints come down to “you’re not the boss of me!”
@MarkedMan: Yes, one thing is indisputably true: In a nation of 350 million people, we can all find an anecdote to prove whatever we want.
I can agree with your sentiment, to a point.
The woman in the article that you mention (I’ll accept your characterization) shouldn’t have been mobbed (assuming she was). However, when she was confronted with how her noose was perceived she also shouldn’t have doubled down and refused to see how her display was viewed by others. Unfortunately, she was stubborn and mobs are always stubborn.
You are also correct that all causes are, at least at times, hijacked by mobs and about biblical proscriptions against hairshirts. That said, the too woke are not nearly the threat to progress that the fascist and fascist adjacent racists are. The too woke may be annoying, but they aren’t the ones actively disenfranchising voters across swaths of our country and they certainly weren’t the ones responsible for the horrors of the last couple hundred years. I get that they can be annoying, but however much that annoyance might slow progress at the edges, it isn’t the active push backwards that we are seeing on the right. The only damage they really do is to give some squishy folks in the middle something to point to when they want to say both sides…
The difference is that “death” and “inheritance” have completely different meanings. By contrast, “Slave” and “enslaved person” are used to describe the same thing.
In the same way, “Latinx” is supposed to be a better, more inclusive version that some hope will replace “Latino/Latina” and/or “Hispanic”
This relationship doesn’t exist with death and inheritance.
Furthermore, no one except a few cranks insists that “death taxes” ought to replace “inheritance taxes” or “estate taxes” as the accepted term of art for taxes on the assets of dead people. By contrast, the intention is definitely to replace “slave” with “enslaved person” as the term of art, and Latinx for Latino/Latina.
“Death taxes” is just political trolling, like “death panels” or any number of other cleverly designed phrases that are intended to grab attention.
[blockquote]What I’m skeptical of are attempts by third-parties to short-cut this process or impose new words, especially when there isn’t any pejorative or negative context.[\blockquote]
The thing is, that is part of how retarded replaced words like idiot, moron, and imbecile. It was third parties, medical and social, that pushed for that change. It looks organic and how language changes in hindsight both because it was over 100 years ago and because it was organic and part of how language changes and has always changed. This isn’t some new development divorced from how language has evolved from time immemorial, it has been a part of how human language has changed since humans had hierarchies and those hierarchies contained empathetic people and it has always annoyed people that want to cling to ‘what words really mean’.
Shorter Andy: “Change is bad in the early stages but totally fine when generally accepted.”
This completely overlooks how change happens. Change in language never happens without initial action by a few, followed by early adopters, etc. How else could it occur?
I suspect that Andy (and certain others) simply don’t like who is trying to create change in this particular case (“lefties are bad, mkay”), using whatever argument (none of them too strong) they can think of to discredit this particular change in language.
Also, the position that language doesn’t control thought (including the imposition of value judgements) goes directly against Orwell’s writings on language and ideology – which is a pretty bold position to take, IMO.
Lol, like the left-wing is any different. No one wants to be forced to dance to any tune played by political enemies.
Why is the onus on the woman to submit to the demands of a mob attempting to coerce her?
I’ll respond to this and then sign off. I think your use of “third-parties” and “short-cut” and “impose” are key.
Who are these third-parties?
Are they not populated by people?
And are these people somehow removed from the “normal” evolution of language?
And how is it that these people expressing their opinion (to use your term) is somehow outside of this evolution?
And while I grant you that some (many) of the most strident advocates can be, well, strident. And annoying.
And yet in this context, I don’t see them as trying to impose anything. Or demonize people who haven’t made the change they advocate for. Maybe I’m just being overly generous.
Rather, most of them are expressing their preferences. And trying to accelerate changes that are consistent with those preferences. Now, you and I may disagree with their preferences and/or push for change, but it seems odd to object to them having and acting on their preferences.
I think it’s useful to scale out from this one example re “slaves.” As far as I know, the advocates for this language change are not solely focused on this one example. Rather, they are advocating for a more general principle — that our words ought to reflect the reality of power dynamics and how these collide with human beings.
It’s the same principle underlying the distinction between “racial groups” vs. “racialized groups.” From the perspective of the advocates, the former conveys the sense that race is an inherent property of the group and its constituents. The latter conveys the sense that race is a social construction that is assigned to people in order to maintain hierarchies of power.
You also see this play out in discussions of immigration (“illegals”), law (“felons”), mental health (“schizophrenic”), and many others.
These are really thorny issues that are not easily resolved. Social progress requires a multi-pronged effort. The advocates maintain that attention to language is one prong. From that perspective, it would be social malpractice not to advocate for language change.
No, change is not bad in the early stages. Not sure where you got that interpretation.
My specific skepticism is listed in my first comment; namely, I’m skeptical that intentionally attempting to change words in a top-down manner will cause people to think differently or act differently.
I haven’t overlooked that. Indeed I’ve made several comments about how language evolves and I would agree that early adopters are essential in the process.
The second thing I’m skeptical of is the ability of advocates to force the process to a certain end. Sometimes it may happen, but outside of specific conditions like 1984 or back when literacy was controlled by elites, it’s generally not possible. Language today is free – probably the freest of free markets – it’s not easy to subjugate.
Your suspicion is incorrect. You keep insisting on trying to peg me as a right-winger – at this point I don’t see much use in trying to prove I’m not who you imagine me to be.
If you want to provide examples of right-wingers attempting to change the swap words for dubious reasons, I will happily express similar skepticism.
Language is very important when it comes to cognition and all sorts of things. I have no beef with Orwell. I’m not talking here about language generally, I’m talking about the specific cases these threads have been about. Orwell’s insights on the broad importance of language does not mean that using “enslaved person” instead of “slave” is going to change thoughts, beliefs, actions, ideology, or anything else. Things might be different if the common understanding of “slave” was substantially different than “enslaved person,” but it isn’t. The language may evolve to create a different understanding, and if that happens, great!
It was Brooklyn and not the Bronx, and it was brown kids with frizzy hair being hanged by nooses and not a noose, and the woman lived in front of an elementary school which was primarily black.
Here’s the article . Her decorations are pictured at the top. They are not acceptable. She moved and bought a house in a traditional black neighborhood, and you can not do that. What happened next is why the Times covered it, because it’s a part of a larger story about gentrification. None of this mysterious. That people like you somehow took from this story an old white woman hung a noose as a decoration and people were irrationally upset on Halloween is demented.
@wr: Ayup! And it doesn’t even have to be a particularly good one, either. 🙁
I meant you can not hang those decorations.
Overall, I’m just wondering why a slight change from ‘slave’ to ‘enslaved person’ matters so much. Well, I”m not wondering, because I have a dozen ideas and none are exactly complimentary. I’m white but I’m friends with a lot of non-white people, from Ivy grads to people who grew up in public housing and who apologize in front of me before they talk shit about white people. (They don’t tell me I’m a good white person, thankfully. None of that.) And by and large white fragility or whatever you want to call it is the touchstone for normal interactions with white people. The weird combo of not minding your own business and going inanely nuclear at the mere hint of your own business being observed, judged, or even thought about is not normal. It really isn’t. Theorizing your thin skin into oblivion is not normal. People are messed up across the board, but white people are messed up in a specific and limiting way. It’s like a sublime lack of confidence no one can explain.
Thanks for your comments.
This will probably be the last from me as well. I complain about people spending too much time on keyboards pontificating instead of making progress in the real world, yet here I am.
Those are excellent points. On the last one, I am probably guilty of being too strident in this debate which has led to poorly worded points.
Part of that is that I see how some people today act like language police, particularly online. I do not like those tactics, and I see plenty of demonizing. If you use the wrong word or a word in the wrong context, it’s automatically assumed that you are evil or ignorant, and are called out for it – there is no space for disagreement, and grace is reserved solely for the accusers.
So perhaps I’m overly primed to see all attempted changes coming from elite spaces as inevitably resulting in that end. I can see where 90% of the English-speaking world understands the meaning of “slave” perfectly well, but that word becomes verboten in places of social and cultural importance – and using that word is construed as racist or whatever, regardless of intent.
The second thing that raises my hackles is the notion of using language (and many other things) as social engineering. It’s one thing to advocate for changing words because they are more accurate, carry less baggage, or are less pejorative, it’s quite another (IMO) to try to change words as an attempt to change the people.
And one thing I keyed in on your response is the notion of “power dynamics” and “hierarchies of power.” Attempting to promote changing the language to facilitate that particular framing (or any ideological framing), is something I’m simply deeply skeptical of. A lot of people do not agree with the whole “power dynamics” construct and will oppose efforts to promote it.
I get that is the intent, but I’m skeptical of the assumption that new wording accomplishes that goal, even if one agrees with the goal to begin with, and many people don’t.
Count me in as being opposed to both racial and racialized labels. They cannot account for other factors. But I’m not sure who the advocates you’re mentioning actually are. It seems to me that race as an inherent property is becoming the normalized view.
I don’t think the issues are that thorny. In fact, I think adding racialized and other labels to huge, diverse, and complex groups of people adds the thorniness – for example, dividing humanity into two categories: “white” and “people of color.”
Much also depends on how “social progress” is defined, and who is doing the defining. That is a thorny issue because there is legitimate disagreement not only on goals, but also on priorities and processes.
Anyway, I really appreciate your engagement, and I look forward to further discussions.
@Modulo Myself: Wait. Are you saying that those images obviously represent black and Latino children? The one with the red hair and lederhosen?
I’m not saying it. The school and the parents and children who were across the street were saying it.
Public notice: I’m not ducking this thread, I’m in Santorini, 10 hours off my usual PST, which is a bit awkward for real-time engagement. And now I’m typing next to my sleeping wife which s a handicap as I am a notoriously noisy typist. (Two-finger typist, big hands.)
The burden of proof is on those demanding change. Oriental to Asian, slave to enslaved person, etc… I see nothing upstream that makes the case (as Andy has highlighted) that word changes create real world change. Indeed in an earlier thread Steven dismissed the idea that we should use that criterion. But if neologisms don’t alter reality, what is their purpose? To clarify? Obviously not.
In the political context neologisms are intended to bring about change. If they fail to have the intended effect, WTF are they for?
Not quite, my friend, I am leery of presuppositions that go unchallenged because those presuppositions are the foundations of the next idea and the next. If the first brick is damaged it may weaken the entire wall. We must be clear that 2+2 = 4 before we can move on to 4/2=2.
The beginning of sound epistemology is a process of challenging presuppositions. The best way to achieve an organized garage is to first drag all the old junk into the driveway, decide which bits and pieces are not worth keeping, then throw the trash in the bin and organize what’s left. I’m not generally a rigorous person, but in this I am. (Not the garage, my brain.) I insist on knowing why every important databit is lodged in my brain, and I’m ruthless in purging the old junk. The things which I believe were not packaged for me by the educational system, I programmed myself. Like one of those old-school nerds who insists on building his own computer, the result is not elegant, may not even be faster, but I know all the parts and how they work.
In any case, when I’m told I must discard word (X) and replace it with word (Z) I need to be convinced. I need to see the point. I need to know the effect. I don’t just plug new components in without being sure they serve a purpose.
That terminological change was propounded by the scientific community. First, because warming is only one aspect of climate change. Second, because instances of “cooling” was cited by critics to prove “warming” wasn’t happening.
Dude, you picked the wrong example to go with your argument. Because “enslaved person” offers superior clarity compared to “slave.”
“Slave” is a quality belonging to a person. “Enslaved person” clarifies that this quality has been (and continues to be) forcibly imposed by someone else.
So you get more meaning, albeit at the cost of some brevity. This is not necessarily an unreasonable trade-off.
Especially not if one considers the ongoing attempts to whitewash slavery. You should do a Google search on “Texas school books slavery” for funsies. You will end up with results like this:
You get the drift.
@Michael Reynolds: ” I’m not ducking this thread, I’m in Santorini, ”
I didn’t think you were ducking the thread. I was hoping you realized you were in one of the most beautiful places in the world and were spending your time picking useless fights on the internet. Can’t you find someone local to fight with?
The definition of slave is enslaved person as mentioned by others upstream. No one ever thought slave meant enslaved animals or enslaved olive trees. It is pure redundancy, therefore in no way clarifying. It’s just six syllables in lieu of one. In fact, what else could be enslaved? What other than a person could be a slave? Redundancy is not clarity.
Dude, what’s left of OTB if no one picks fights?
You’re being obtuse and unserious.
Cf. my comment above:
There are deliberate, ongoing attempts to disguise the brutal violence inherent in slavery (in textbooks, no less) and your reply amounts to “Despite that, additional clarification is a nefarious plot by the PC language police.”
One thing is for certain: people sure like arguing over this topic, which lends substantial credence to the underlying premise of the post.
@Michael Reynolds: Re: Slave vs. Enslaved Person.
In Spanish there is a first-person verb form for a permanent state (soy) vs. a temporary state (estoy). If you used “soy” with “slave” you would be implying that is their permanent and natural state of being – akin to their family relationship with you, birth sex, or skin color.
If you used “estoy”, it would be more aligned with”enslaved person” – meaning that it is their current descriptor, but it is not permanent or natural to them.
I think that’s the difference folks are trying to convey here. It’s just harder in English.
Kathy could explain it better.
@Michael Reynolds: “Dude, what’s left of OTB if no one picks fights?”
To be fair. this one is kind of interesting at its heart (as opposed to, say, “some college kid said something stupid so all Democrats are doomed”). Still, I like to think that next time I’m on vacation somewhere lovely none of you are going to hear a peep from me.
And if that inspires people here to start a Gofundme to send me on vacation, my ego can take that hit…
A passing thought: if words don’t have any power, I guess we can stop debating the political impact of “defund the police”?
For that matter, isn’t a huge part of the argument about wokism about what words people use?
@Steven L. Taylor: “For that matter, isn’t a huge part of the argument about wokism about what words people use?”
Apparently we all live by Emerson’s maxim around here (with the exception of our hosts): “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Ideas have power, words provide leverage, and context is the fulcrum.
Take away the context, and the words do absolutely nothing. This can be shown by the fact that the exact same words that get Trump supporters cheering will make most of us here either laugh or shake our heads sadly.
The right words (the proper lever) applied with and in the right context (the proper placement of the fulcrum) with the right power (ideas behind it), can make major changes. It’s an entire system, not just words.
@Mu Yixiao: As I noted in the OP, on the one hand, sure, but on the other it is quite clear that no one is saying that the sounds or letters are imbued with power.
So, kind of definitionally, the power of words requires ideas and context, yes?
@Steven L. Taylor:
So then, it’s not the words that have power. It’s the ideas and context.
Saying “words have power” removes the idea and the context from the equation.
“Words provide leverage” is much more accurate and more descriptive–which, ironically, is what you’re arguing with “enslaved person” vs. “slave”.
You’re looking at this from an academic perspective. I’ve worked in academia–though not at the level you have–and understand where you’re coming from. I have also, however, worked in marketing–which utilizes language in a persuasive manner–and in both academia an marketing in a culture which has almost zero shared context with your background and perspective.
I spent every day for over six years studying and explaining the “power of words” to a culture that shares exactly zero context with either you or I.
I had to–repeatedly–explain why Chinese could not (in “the west”) refer to themselves as “yellow”. Their reaction was almost universally “Why not?” That word has no power. It does, however, give leverage within a specific context. Sans context (and the idea behind it), the word is absolutely neutral.
I would, depending on the context and my feeling about the class participants, teach a class on racial insults. I would write every racial epithet I could think of on the white board, and then explain why my (manager to CEO) students (engaged in international business) shouldn’t say any of these words. Without fail, they asked why. My only response was “Because someone will be offended”.
On the funny side: As the marketing director for a clearspan structure company in China, I was the lead for entering new markets. Part of that was localizing language. Our German parent company, for example, kept insisting that we call our product as “marquees”. That’s the European word for what we call “tents” or “pavilions”. It took me the better part of a year to get them to understand that, in the US, a “marquee” is a big sign on the side of a building.
So… One of the add-ons we had was a rounded extension at the end of a pavilion (rather than a flat wall). The Chinese engineer who worked as a liaison between the Chinese and foreign sales teams called me down one day to talk about descriptions of the various features for marketing purposes. He wanted to call this rounded extension a “bell end” (I’ll pause to allow our British friends to stop laughing).
I had to open up my CN/EN dictionary to tell him why this was a bad idea.
I’m sorry, Steven, but your insistence that “words have power” is rooted in the fact that you exist in a very specific context that isn’t shared by 7 billion other people.
Remove Churchill’s “We will fight them” speech from the context of WWII, and it’s laughable.
Give any rally speech by Trump to a group of liberals, and it’s laughable.
Take the most powerful speech that Jed Bartlett gave in The West Wing, and recite it in a monotone. It’s completely ineffectual.
The words have no power.
They can only apply leverage to an idea that the audience is willing to hear and embrace–when spoken/written in a way that resonates with the audience.
@Mu Yixiao: I just think you are being, to deploy a word, pedantic.
Indeed, it is kind of funny in the broader context of this conversation, which started with people saying the phrase “enslaved persons” was using too many words to say “slave” that we have to explain that the phrase “words have power” with paragraphs of “well, actually, it isn’t really the words by themselves” when it is pretty obvious that no one is claiming that the words by themselves are power.
In this context leverage is the equivalent of power, so words have power.