Emily Bazelon’s essay in the New York Times is about a topic that I often think about, how certain words and topics for the better part of two decades have been and are being redefined to mean things that they really don’t mean.
“Bully” or “bullying” is the word and topic explored by Bazelon in her essay. She posits that it has come to be so defined that as presently used, “bullying” can mean a wide range of activity, from practically nothing behavior to extreme violence and everything in between. She likens this to crying wolf, that it either waters down or so infects society that either real bullies might go free, or non-bullies might be unreasonably snared by the net of expanded meaning that “bullying” has taken on.
I agree with this and more. My observation is that rather than a range of understanding about what constitutes bullying for example, and then a ranking of the bullying behavior, which would have a concomitant range of social or civic penalties associated with the degree of “bullying”, all bullying is now considered equal, and in the bargain, even non-bullying behavior, merely the suggestion of disagreeing with someone can be met with the accusation and judgment that what they are doing is also “bullying”.
This holds true for a whole host of symbolic words used regularly now, and a whole host of behaviors. No longer is there a real effort to rank behavior, to gauge whether it is high or low, really offensive or not offensive, all offenses are easily and often deemed equal in their offense; and typically at the high end of offensiveness.
Many people might think that this lexiconic revisionism is an innocuous practice, “who cares?” it is better to ensnare some innocent bystanders than to let one bully or other offender to get away with it? But is that really what happens and is that really what is at stake with language revisionism?
People should care because the unfettered redefinition of words and then their use as weapons in a war against an ever growing range of Others who are being shut down and shut out of all sorts of aspects of society is a serious problem; of course this isn’t true if you happen to be on the winning side of this equation.
The basic mechanics of this phenomenon or trend is this: certain words have been changed and are being changed so that instead of being elements of speech or of sentences that are used to express ideas or to convey information based on a common understanding of what the word means, that is the dictionary definition, these particular words are now granted an elevated and symbolic status. They are given a social weight due to there engineered meanings, with many “useful” ways in which they can be used, but mainly used to hurt, thwart, or otherwise inflict damage on a target.
As evidenced by the long history we’ve now had with word redefinition, the predominate goal of word revisionism is to establish the word with its new “meaning”, to change its form as a part of speech into a frontloaded object that is imbued with symbolism and attributes of an agenda that it is to be the proxy for.
Thus when the word is used, invoked, it is invoked negatively as an accusation against someone or someone’s behavior or activities. Then because the word is so front loaded with an agenda of values or goals, it also carries with it an implied set of retributions or penalties that are associated with the breaking of the agenda which are automatically delivered, the condemnation, a sentence is levied as it were for breaking “the rules”.
This is how in practice the evolved word, the symbolic literary vessel then becomes a weapon that can be used to further the invoker/accuser’s agenda, be it broader or individual.
The constructed word can be used to silence or to penalize as the case may be, or it can do both.
Realistically, from a literal standpoint, these redefined words are real straw men, but because popular society has pretty close to wholly granted or acceded authority and power to the symbolism and meaning of the agenda these symbolic words represent, they are used in a lot of ways – predominately to silence dissent, disagreement, or challenges to authority on the high end, and to silence or penalize any form of criticism or even minor differences of opinion between individuals on the low end.
Regularly these symbolic words are invoked against someone or some situation, then their invocation brings into play a panoply of automatic responses, including mostly the automatic censure of the target against whom the word is invoked. This is all done without critical assessment as to whether “the word” really applies to the situation or person, whether that is what really was going on. The whole idea of rectitude or justification of such invocative behavior pretty much does not matter anymore. The words act as a summary judge and jury acting without benefit of question, inquiry or trial, and they automatically levy a penalty of condemnation and disregard for the person invoked against.
Even with this explanation however there are still likely doubters about such a premise, about words so laden with meaning, agendas, or invective that they are indeed very destructive and even more dangerous to a person’s wellbeing. Such a proposition might seem a little out there; but to be sure, the argument here is that the words in question and their usage is more dangerous than the usage of words employed destructively has ever been before. We are not talking about gossip or false witness for example. That’s been around for eons. This goes beyond that. We’re talking about a new breed of lexiconical attack, “words” that have been granted special status in today’s society and how they are being employed or deployed against people and ideas.
The Bible has an interesting passage about “words” as weapons of destruction. My late brother-in-law Willis Campbell used to quote this passage from Isaiah 28:13 at Bible studies he gave to explain various aspects of the Bible that he was teaching. He would weave together the lesson from select portions of the Bible and would build his case for the lesson, that it could be understood from the sum of the theological building blocks he was presenting. Willis would present his scriptural case, that he was doing it by setting out, “Here a word, there a word, precept upon precept, line by line…”. The verse however in its full Biblical context wasn’t entirely about case building however. Willis never added the last part of the verse, which bolsters the case being made here; that the purpose of today’s agenda ridden words of symbology are a means to an end. Their purpose is intended to be that those to whom the words are applied against will ultimately and hopefully be stopped in their tracks, come to a bad social or political end, our held up for public ridicule or approbation.
The full Biblical verse is “Here a word, there a word, precept upon precept, line by line, so that as they go they will fall backward; they will be injured and snared and captured”, or as Wesley puts it, “they will fall backward, which is the worst and most dangerous way of falling; and so be broken to pieces.”
The context then for our present considerations here is that the cloth of words made from former meaning are being rewoven from the whole cloth of agendas, in order that they may be used to accomplish the goals of those who invoke them. Here a word, there a word, and before you know it targets are injured, snared, or captured, figuratively or literally, in some way that renders them either neutral, chastened, or nonexistent.
Part of what has made word revisionism an effective strategy and trend of the last decade plus has to do with the phenomenon that has swept over just about everything that occurs in life, it is the hyperization of all aspects of our lives, including certain words. From a broader perspective everything is now hyped far beyond what really is taking place. The accepted norm is to ascribe far greater meaning or importance to something than formerly would have ever been given to it. Part of this has to do with the media. The demands of broadcasting and publishing always rely upon ascribing greater than normal importance to whatever person or topic is being presented, otherwise why present it?
Word revisionism works well with hyperization, because it is basically premised on the same mechanism, infusing something with greater importance or meaning than it fundamentally possesses. With words, rather than retaining their historical and day-to-day meaning, certain of them have come to possess something more than meaning. They possess the power to control or destroy, that makes them noteworthy and newsworthy. Added into the mix of word revisionism is the fact that unless you’ve been off the grid somewhere, we’re all media mavens now-a-days, and pretty much all of us have learned the drill – you too can be a star, you too can make the news, and you too can be a personality in many walks of life, which in translation makes you powerful in some form or fashion. One of the better ways to do it is to make yourself or something about you greater than it might be, including using the power words against someone who opposes or displeases you. Someone might attack you, or someone might attack you. One garners greater notice and acclaim than the other.
This latter aspect of hyperization and word manipulation starts with a popular premise that we are all standalone, precious beings in our own right. We are inviolate. No one has a right to distort or damage whatever self-image we have, although damage is not even part of it. No one has a right to suggest that some other image of us might be more the reality, or the alternative concomitant reality. The companion to inviolate is infallibility in our perspectives about life in general and in our viewpoints. While we pretend to have this intellectual side that allows for others to maybe have viewpoints that are “allowed,” implicit in our allowing is what we’re really giving which is permission, and underlying that is that we believe ourselves to possess the power to give permission to someone to do something in the first place.
Think about it, the typical allowance for someone else’s actions, opinions, or existence in our lives comes via our permission to grant the other existence in the first place. Then today’s social correctness calls for us to grant permission to the person holding a viewpoint different than ours, which basically is premised back on the core sense of being that we hold, that we are actually right in a general sense, and that we are beings that are beyond the interpretations or predations of anyone who might burst our bubble. Today’s autonomous beings understand that they are above most everyone, they are like royalty, they exist on a plane above all others, which carries with it a fairly large self-sense of privilege and omniscience, and if they are benevolent royalty, then they can grant others the permission to speak their minds, but that doesn’t mean they are right or that they are even being listened to. Their views, opinions, thoughts, whatever, to the grantor they might as well be so much drivel or straw as the case may be.
Essentially this boils down to a sense of omnipotence, be it great or small. Today’s all knowing, self-knowing being, via assorted mediums has been told often and long enough that they are special and no one knows better than them, and no one has a right to challenge that self-definition and understanding. This leads to the broader problem that the modification of the lexicon can now be used extensively to shut down discourse about quite a few things, commentary about self being one, or just general disagreement of any kind.
In political practice, the moment officials or people with a public agenda hears something they don’t like, something that might just be a criticism from the public about what they are either doing or advocating for, the officials can easily fall back to the position that criticism of them or their agenda makes them feel threatened, they feel unsafe, and then can cloak themselves with a whole artificial wall of words that have a lot of meaning, including they can use them to convey in the reverse a threat to the person that has proffered a perspective that disagrees with them.
The stakes are escalated from a mere disagreement of opinion, ideology, or a value, into a high stakes game that has far greater implications than what was ever at stake in the first place. The now indiscriminate usage of these key symbolic words has resulted in their application to situations and people whether they properly apply or whether the situation or the activities of the person are offensive or not and deserving of an aggressive response, complete with retribution of some kind attached thereto.
Instead of measured responses, all “offenses” have been made equal, “I don’t like you”, “I don’t like something about you”, or “I don’t want to be with you”, are all seen as the same thing – equally offensive, equally injurious, equally personal, and equally deserving of pretty much the same sort of penalty. Heaven forbid that you disagree with someone, and even have an emotion that someone does not like. Such situations are now regularly morphed into commentaries about and equated to such things as “hate” for example. The most garden variety disagreement can be re-characterized as being tantamount to violence. The connection and inference is made that the opposing person is making someone feel “unsafe”, an escalation of situational meaning, which carries with it the threat to the alleged perpetrator – you make me feel uncomfortable which equals “unsafe”, unsafe means you’ve threatened me, threats equate to violence, you’re a violent person, there is a penalty for being violent, it is not tolerated, your life, freedom, or well-being are deservedly in jeopardy as a consequence of you making me feel uncomfortable.
That’s pretty much the drill, and it’s pretty much the consequence of word revisionism that it is effectively used to facilitate situational revisionism now. It has developed and endured because of its efficacy. As an effective strategy, in my opinion it is being used very successfully by government in particular to staunch criticism or objections by citizens to a lot of what government is engaged in. Citizens know, if they express too strong an opinion their demeanor, their actions, objections, or engagement are subject to definition, and it only takes one word to be so redefined to cause them to fall backward and be injured, snared or captured, whether literally or figuratively.