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When Words Lose Their Meanings
The latest casualty in America’s culture war? The English language.
The past decade has been a bad one for clear and specific language. Since around 2014, when the political left pivoted to emphasizing identity and systemic oppression, redefining words has become an increasingly fundamental tool in political activism.
Take the term “white supremacy.” For most people, white supremacy refers to a) the belief that white people constitute a superior race; and b) political and societal arrangements predicated on this explicitly racist idea. But this straightforward definition has gone out of style. Activists have found that there is little political incentive to maintain such a tight definition when, by loosening it a little, you can shame and humiliate your adversaries. And so activists loosened it. Now, standardized testing is white supremacy; criticizing identity-based politics is white supremacy; “worship of the written word” is white supremacy.
Of course, not everyone on the left is acting in bad faith. Some activists truly believe that the traditional understanding of white supremacy should be broadened to explain how racism is woven into our society, norms, and institutions. Robin DiAngelo, a well-known diversity trainer and author, defines white supremacy as “the historical and current accumulation of structural power that privileges, centralizes, and elevates white people as a group.” But broad definitions like this one are incredibly vague: jargon like “structural power” and “elevate” is open to interpretation. Such ambiguity makes it all but certain that the term will be a source of confusion or used as a rhetorical trump card. When a widely circulated document claims that punctuality is white supremacy culture, and others insist it’s just good manners, constructive discussion on issues of race becomes unlikely.
The political right caught on, and has started redefining words for purposes of its own. Until a few weeks ago, the term “groomer” referred to a person who built a relationship with a child in order to sexually exploit and abuse them. But now, merely opposing conservative efforts to ban classroom discussion related to sexual orientation or gender identity supposedly makes you a groomer. As the Florida governor’s press secretary wrote in March, “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children. Silence is complicity.”
The right has done the same thing with critical race theory. Chris Rufo, one of the primary activists behind CRT bans in school, said as much when he wrote on Twitter that “the goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’” And it worked. Numerous Republican state legislatures are either considering or have already passed laws to “ban CRT” in schools. But, purposefully or not, many of these laws restrict much more than what even a very broad understanding of CRT would encompass.
This is not to say that racism does not exist in the United States, or that the state has no legitimate role to play in setting school curricula. But, whether on the left or right, purposefully distorting words to score political points muddles our discourse and pollutes the laws we live by.
A useful term for this phenomenon is “concept creep.” This idea was first explored by the social psychologist Nick Haslam, who defines it as “the gradual semantic expansion of harm-related concepts such as bullying, mental disorder, prejudice, and trauma.” Concept creep has been especially prominent in psychology. For example, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, was once a narrowly defined mental health problem that people experience after a life-threatening experience—usually war. But now, psychologists have expanded the category to include life experiences like childbirth, sexual harassment, and infidelity, that may be physically or emotionally painful, but are far afield from the traditional understanding of PTSD.
And the idea of concept creep also applies outside psychology. Consider a tweet posted by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley in January: “Cancelling student debt is racial justice. Abolishing the filibuster is racial justice. Expanding & protecting voting rights is racial justice. Paid leave is racial justice.” While it may be true that racial minorities would benefit from paid leave or loan forgiveness, these are economic policies. We can debate the merits of rebranding “racial justice” to mean “any policy that I believe will help racial minorities,” but such a definitional expansion is a clear example of concept creep. Many other political terms and ideas, from “eugenics,” “racist,” “colonize,” and “violence” on the left to “wokeness,” “communism,” and “Marxism” on the right, are often distorted in similar ways.
The unsurprising consequence is that words have come to mean different things to the left and the right. That is why, when a recent segment on MSNBC’s Morning Joe featured a poll showing that over half of Republican voters would not find it a “major problem” if a “candidate is accused of” making anti-semitic, racist, or homophobic remarks, I was less alarmed than the host, who called these voters “fascist” (itself a fantastic example of a word that has been mangled by concept creep). To be sure, there will always be a small number of voters who will support bigoted politicians. But what I suspect is really going on in this poll is that many respondents have seen terms like “anti-Semitic” or “racist” stretched to include banal or thoughtless remarks. When they said that they would not be overly bothered by accusations that a political candidate made anti-semitic remarks, respondents were imagining a Whoopie Goldberg-level offense, not a Mel Gibson one.
In combination, the increasing malleability of words and the tendency towards maximalist accusations are degrading our public square. The most extreme activists might find this degradation and polarization good for their ends, but for the exhausted majority, it is a menace. When words lose their meanings, communicating with and understanding anybody on the opposite political team becomes more difficult. Democrats and Republicans are left talking at and about their adversaries, but never to them.
The deliberate deployment of concept creep for political ends is too effective a weapon for activists to stop using it of their own accord. This means that there likely is no easy solution to the damage it does. The best that those of us concerned about civil discourse and constructive disagreement can do is to use clear and specific language—and to insist that our interlocutors do the same.
Seth Moskowitz is an associate editor at Persuasion.