I’m interested in the language that’s used in polarized conversations. It seems to be coming up more and more often. Bill Maher talks about this frequently. He rightly accuses the left of using labels that end in -phobic, for instance, where those labels don’t apply. I think that any time someone hyperbolizes(1) an argument, it diminishes it — unless there’s a good deal of trust between people to begin with. It’s weird, because the left is usually more guilty of complicating and confusing language in the supposed interest of subtlety and precision, but then somehow this often ends up in some kind of final label, which does the exact opposite. Remember Bill Clinton? “It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.” <face palm>
For instance, the left might argue that the theological and historical differences between Islam and Christianity are subtle and complex; that all religions are similar. But in the end it’s the left that co-opts the term “Islamophobic” to mean anyone who disagrees with something that comes out of Islam. Questioning something does not mean you are “phobic” of it. I think every time the left does this, it allows the right a chance to co-opt an important concept like “woke.” Woke was intended to mean being attentive to important issues. But going too far in that direction puts the whole idea out of balance, creating an opening for the right to co-opt the term to mean exactly the opposite.
The right, on the other hand, prefers simpler language — at least on the surface. Just hearken back to the bumbling language used by George W. Bush, or the overt schoolyard tactics of Donald Trump. Conservatives liked both of them because they thought they “told it like it was” in “plain language.” In reality, they were often over-simplifying complex issues to the point of childishness. Questioning basic premises is not “gaslighting.” The right is proudly anti-woke.
Did you know that there’s a whole scramble in the interverse(2) to find a word for “anti-woke?” There is. However, people seem to be searching for the opposite of the “stolen” meaning of “woke,” not the original meaning. It’s like schoolchildren on the playground: “You’re ugly! Oh yeah? Well YOU’re uglier! Am not — you’re the UGLY-est!”… and so on.
In the end, It seems to me that there are two fundamental alternatives that lead to better conversations (not to over-simplify, of course. See what I did there)?
The first approach is to slow down and pick at the language. To be logically consistent and coherent, we could be very precise in our language — defining and re-defining every term; justifying and clarifying and contextifying(3) every phrase. We’ll all sound like lawyers. In general, this is not a world I want to live in. But lawyers serve a purpose in the world, and we would be wise to keep that in mind.
The other approach is to create more trust before we have important conversations to begin with. Allow each side to speak freely, and then allow each other to question each others’ meaning without nit-picking. This trust is missing in almost anything on the internet. I guess UnderstandingOnPurpose is intended to be a place where trust comes first.
BTW… I tried to make up some words during this post just to be cheeky, and I failed. According to at least one of my spell-checkers, somebody already beat me to the following: (1) Hyperbolize, (2) Interverse, and (3) Contextify.