Words, Words, Words

 

A couple of days ago, I started a conversation on Facebook about the use of a specific word. I’m not going to tell you what that specific word is, because it is beside the point I want to make here. The conversation was lively, most people disagreed with me, it got a little testy, and I eventually deleted the entire thing.

Sidebar: The instant I deleted the conversation, I felt foolish. I felt like a fool for two reasons. First, as soon as the conversation began to get very personal, I “took my ball and went home.” Disagree with me? Make it personal? Conversation over. That was childish. Second, as my wife says “If you can shut someone up, you can control them.” I felt like I’d been shut up. The personal bit of the conversation was basically “I don’t understand why anyone is even discussing this, it’s sad, you don’t care about how people feel.” To paraphrase the paraphrase: this is settled science, so just knuckle under and behave the way you are supposed to. There is nothing to discuss here.

Sidebar to the sidebar: There is no such thing as settled science. Anyone who tells you that there is no reason to have the discussion is just trying to shut you up. Okay, back to the point.

Here is the point I was trying to make. It stems from something that happened to my 15-year-old daughter at school.  She referred to someone using a specific term. She was not being derogatory, she was not making fun. She simply used the term to describe the condition of the person, so that the person she was talking to would know who she was talking about. She was then told “You can’t say that, it’s mean.” She came home and asked “Why is that mean?” I think she understands why the term can be mean, she was just frustrated that the person she was talking to did not take the term in the context it was used, but rather ascribed meaning to my daughter’s words that she did not intend.

And there’s the root of my point. Someone heard the word, had their own ideas about what that word means, and decided that is what my daughter meant when she said it. So I took to Facebook to point out that words have meaning, and that words have different meanings in different contexts. Rather than ascribe meaning to a word that isn’t there, in the context of the spoken and written word, we should strive to understand the person communicating. We should take what we know about the person, and ask ourselves “Is what I think I am hearing consistent with what I know about this person?” We should ask “When you use that word, what do you mean?”

By now you may have guessed the word that was used. On dictionary.com the word has two definitions. The first is a simple statement of fact. No moral judgement exists in that definition. The second definition is different. It means, literally, something completely different than the first definition. There is a moral judgement explicit in the definition. When my daughter used the word, she intended the first definition. When I spoke about it on Facebook, I was speaking about the first definition. No moral judgements about anyone were implied. Yet, moral judgements were made about us. Even when trying to explain that words have meaning, and that understanding each other is important, moral judgements were hurled at us. Victoria is mean. I am insensitive. I am unnecessarily agitative. I think “those people” are worthless. We are offensive if we use that word, regardless of the intent.  We should use other words. It should be noted, of course, that some of the words we were instructed to use were found offensive by others.

So, the more I thought about this political correctness (because that is all this is), the more I began to realize that words really have no meaning. Words are meaningless. Only feelings matter. I feel like you meant a certain thing, and therefore you did. The words you used have no meaning whatsoever. This is the insidious nature of political correctness. Political correctness has created a culture of communicative laziness. We no longer “seek first to understand.” Rather, it seems, we seek first to find offense.

Finally, what have I learned? Yesterday morning I would have said “I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut.” But as the whole thing sunk in, I’ve learned that I’m stronger than that. I like to discuss Big Important Issues. It’s why I’m a member of Ricochet. It’s why I post things on Facebook, and engage people in discussion in person. I think talking about these things is important. And if you don’t like it, you can lump it. I won’t be shut up. Never again.

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  1. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Political correctness is the puss filled boil which is a symptom of the underlying disease: relativism. Can you imagine someone as handy with the language as W. F. Buckley attempting to communicate in this culture? Even he would be flummoxed by the cultural prohibition against using words when their mere utterance has a greater than zero chance of causing someone offense. We’ve reached this state because the individual perception of reality is now held in higher regard than actual reality.

    • #1
  2. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Spin, I’m slow, but since you are here on Rico, tell us what the word is.  But yes–totally in agreement about the ridiculous PC world we live in.  I think there are starting to be cracks in the PC armor, however.  Check out this hilarious guide to the PC.  Once you can make such delicious fun of something, it’s about to fall.  And I might add that facebook is a terrible place to start a discussion.

    http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9432672/an-a-to-z-of-the-new-pc/

    • #2
  3. Spin Coolidge
    Spin
    @Spin

    The word is “retarded.”

    (here come the pitchforks)

    • #3
  4. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Spin:The word is “retarded.”

    (here come the pitchforks)

    Oh good grief!  I’m sorry your daughter got treated that way.  And you for that matter.  Interesting–when I was in grade school it was a word used to refer to developmentally delayed children or however you want to put it. Then it got used so much for other reasons that it came to mean something was generally stupid. Now I’m not sure what it means, but I rarely hear it. It could perhaps be safely used to describe my own slowness in understanding what word you were talking about!   In general, we all just need to quit looking for reasons to be offended.

    • #4
  5. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Spin:The word is “retarded.”

    (here come the pitchforks)

    The irony is that “retarded” was originally intended as a more PC substitute for prior words like “idiot” or “simpleton” or any of a variety of other terms.  In time “mentally handicapped” will be seen as cruel and replaced with something even sillier, but then that will take on a pejorative meaning, etc. etc. etc.

    • #5
  6. user_511103 Inactive
    user_511103
    @GregOldham

    The King Prawn:…We’ve reached this state because the individual perception of reality is now held in higher regard than actual reality.

    I would go further and say this is not just relativism, but selfishness.  Those that espouse relativistic/PC doctrine are putting their own desire to not be offended above the good of anyone else.  Not only is individual reality more important, but MY individual reality is the only consideration.  You are not even allowed to think of things that might declare that what I am doing might be in any way less than perfect. I must be right I am me.

    Perhaps this relativism is what is driving what I perceive to be a secular push in society.  If there is a God, and He declared what is and is not good and acceptable, and what I want to do is not on that list, or does not fall inside those guidelines, then I must reject the rule giver.  If nothing is expressly universally good then who is to say what is bad? Except me of course.  Without codified behavior that comes from outside of me I am left to create whatever system of rules makes me the most comfortable and challenges my conduct the least. If what you have said offends me then I get to declare those ideas forbidden.

    • #6
  7. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    I thought I kept it pretty civil. I tried to explain that you weren’t necessarily doing anything wrong. The world is full of unreasonable people and it’s usually better to let them have their way, even when they’re in the wrong. I know this is antithetical to most conservative instincts, but it works almost all the time.

    Spin: Political correctness has created a culture of communicative laziness.

    I find this an interesting claim since political correctness, pretty much by definition, makes communication more difficult. You have to find another way to describe someone other than by their most obvious trait.

    When you find yourself wanting to use a word like that you should ask yourself whether it’s worth communicating in the first place, not simply whether or not it is true. Where’s the line between political correctness and simple politeness? It’s always changing, and perhaps often seems unnecessary, but these are the challenges we face living in a community of incredibly differing people.

    • #7
  8. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    skipsul:

    Spin:The word is “retarded.”

    (here come the pitchforks)

    The irony is that “retarded” was originally intended as a more PC substitute for prior words like “idiot” or “simpleton” or any of a variety of other terms. In time “mentally handicapped” will be seen as cruel and replaced with something even sillier, but then that will take on a pejorative meaning, etc. etc. etc.

    This is true and makes me wonder how often delineating between people who are of average intelligence and less so really requires it’s own label, outside perhaps the medical community. It feels rude to point something like that out when the quality is viewed so instinctively negatively by so many people.

    • #8
  9. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    The unholy hell of it all is that it is a word of great clarity. To retard is to delay or to hold back. Of course there is no delay here because normalcy will never be met. So it clearly means being held back.

    I teach my children that it is obviously wrong to give intentional offense, but not to surrender either their language or their own liberty.

    • #9
  10. AUMom Member
    AUMom
    @AUMom

    Ah, the dreaded “r” word. Your daughter was technically correct and in our youth, it was perfectly acceptable, kind even. It is not so today.

    I hate political correctness. I hate it more than liberal smugness, self-aggrandizing leaders, and Alabama football. I try never to be let myself be swayed by it. Yet I am also a kind person. There are times when kindness dictates that even though I am right, I should keep my yap shut.

    For those of us with developmentally delayed offspring, retarded has a sting that even village idiot does not carry. It is generally hurled with venom, self-satisfaction, and superiority. Not always but even the times when it is meant as neutral, in the minds of the hearer, it is not.

    There will be people who continue to use retarded because they can. Go for it. Just do not excuse or try to validate it unless done in ignorance. Excuse me, after I cry for the lost adulthood of my daughter, I’ll go hug her and do something fun. She’ll think it’s wonderful and won’t know the pain.

    • #10
  11. MLH Inactive
    MLH
    @MLH

    OK. Aim the pitchforks and arrows over here:

    About 8 yrs ago I had a patient who worked the admin office of the local school district. Some kid was passing a note that said: “Say the following out loud: I am we Todd did.” The kid got in trouble and the folks in the admin office, and me, laughed their backsides off.  Of course 8 years ago we were less enlightened.

    • #11
  12. user_158368 Inactive
    user_158368
    @PaulErickson

    We must drive foreigners crazy* with our constantly changing taboo terms.  English is hard enough to learn.  I work every day with people for whom English is not their first language and deeply appreciate how well they can express themselves.  The English-only speakers (myself included) make the extra effort to understand them, even when syntax is out of whack and they don’t use just the right word or tense.

    We should be so kind to our own.

    * Sorry. “Sanity challenged.”

    • #12
  13. AUMom Member
    AUMom
    @AUMom

    MLH:OK. Aim the pitchforks and arrows over here:

    About 8 yrs ago I had a patient who worked the admin office of the local school district. Some kid was passing a note that said: “Say the following out loud: I am we Todd did.” The kid got in trouble and the folks in the admin office, and me, laughed their backsides off. Of course 8 years ago we were less enlightened.

    Don’t forget smart enough to get the joke. As if you could help that.

    • #13
  14. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Yes Greg–you have the right idea.

    • #14
  15. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    AUMom:

    For those of us with developmentally delayed offspring, retarded has a sting that even village idiot does not carry. It is generally hurled with venom, self-satisfaction, and superiority. Not always but even the times when it is meant as neutral, in the minds of the hearer, it is not.

    You hit on one of the problems with “retarded” – it is inaccurate according to current developmental medicine as it was deemed over-encompassing.  My youngest had a severe speech delay and required a great deal of therapy before she could talk.  Once she might have been deemed “retarded”, which while technically true, did not actually describe the nature of her delay.  Now there are both more accurate terms for her issues, as well as very specific treatments for them (the treatments and therapies worked quite well).  The same goes for the son of my best friend – a number of cognitive delays that once would have had him lumped in with a wide variety of kids, but now have recognized specific treatments that have helped him flourish in the last year.

    • #15
  16. Spin Coolidge
    Spin
    @Spin

    skipsul:

    Spin:The word is “retarded.”

    (here come the pitchforks)

    The irony is that “retarded” was originally intended as a more PC substitute for prior words like “idiot” or “simpleton” or any of a variety of other terms. In time “mentally handicapped” will be seen as cruel and replaced with something even sillier, but then that will take on a pejorative meaning, etc. etc. etc.

    I’ve already been taken to task for “handicapped”.  This is also offensive.  Why are you so insensitive.

    • #16
  17. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Well, knock me over with a feather-duster. I thought the definition of retarded was “An Alabama football fan.” I feel like an imbecile. Oh, wait. My dictionary says imbecile is obsolescent. It says, “See MENTAL RETARDATION.” It says that Mental Retardation has replaced Idiot, Imbecile, and Moron. It also says it used to be known as mental deficiency. What the heck is wrong with these Webster people? I swear that I got this dictionary new in 1980 or 1981, just after the update was published.

    So, here is the reality. Whatever term is used to designate people with a real and permanent condition will eventually be used as an insult for people with a temporary condition and then as a general insult. (Extra-chromosome Right Wing, anyone?) This is human nature. You can never, ever, ever successfully run from it by changing the term.

    Years ago, some comedian was talking about Jews and Blacks. Jews have always been Jews, but they don’t change what they are called because someone uses the word as an insult. Blacks, on the other hand have been: Negros, Coloreds, Blacks, Afro-Americans, People of Color, African-Americans, etc. I remember talking to an elderly gentleman years ago during the transition between Afro-Americans and People of Color, and he said, “You can call me Colored. It’s what I grew up with, and it’s no insult to me.”

    • #17
  18. user_740328 Inactive
    user_740328
    @SEnkey

    An old mentor of mine taught me that if I was losing an argument, or was on the wrong side of it, I should focus on the words/grammar/vocabulary of the other side. He warned me it was the lowest form of banter and would demean everyone, but I’ve observed how effective it is at silencing the other side. They stop thinking about big ideas and start thinking about little words and how to correctly use them. It is a terrible thing.

    The left took the great arguments of our times and did the same. Now, many look on politics and think the arguing itself is worthless. With the left, it normally is.

    • #18
  19. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    One has the right to use whatever word one wishes to use.

    One has the responsibility to recognize that meaning is a negotiation between the speaker and the audience.

    The control that the speaker has over the meaning received by the audience is not zero, but it is indeed limited. All speakers have a responsibility to recognize that fact and to design their communications accordingly.

    No speaker has the right to impose a desired meaning on an audience, nor to regulate an audience’s reply to a message, because that reply is also protected speech.

    If one becomes emotionally overwhelmed by audiences not receiving one’s messages in the manner they are intended, then one can either alter one’s messages or one can refrain from speaking.  One can only say “whatever one wants” if one is unaffected by how one’s messages are received.

    • #19
  20. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Arahant:What the heck is wrong with these Webster people?

    Webster’s definitions are a description of how words are most commonly used in the United States at the time of an edition’s publication, according to how the word is most often used in contemporary texts (whether written or broadcast).

    If the majority of published references to the word “black” describe it as white, then Webster will define “black” as white.

    The Oxford dictionary does the same thing, except it’s definitions are based on British usage.

    This is why my favourite dictionary is Wiktionary.org.  It puts the etymology of words clearly and above the definitions, and I find that the #1 definition is usually (or at least often) that which is closest to the word’s etymology, rather than that which conforms most closely to the word’s current popular usage.

    • #20
  21. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Misthiocracy:One has the right to use whatever word one wishes to use.

    One has the responsibility to recognize that meaning is a negotiation between the speaker and the audience.

    The control that the speaker has over the meaning received by the audience is not zero, but it is indeed limited. All speakers have a responsibility to recognize that fact and to design their communications accordingly.

    Ketzel yitzelfricks!

    • #21
  22. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Misthiocracy:

    Arahant:What the heck is wrong with these Webster people?

    Webster’s definitions are a description of how words are most commonly used in the United States at the time of an edition’s publication, according to how the word is most often used in contemporary texts (whether written or broadcast).

    Understood. But if we go through so many changes of definition that the preferred term of 35 years ago is at least two iterations behind, we have no language left. I already said that the preferred term in 1980 was “mental retardation.” Let me share another:

    Afro-American:  adj. of Negro Americans, their culture, etc. —n. a Negro American

    The term African-American hadn’t even made the dictionary yet. This was a dictionary put out the year Reagan was elected. Was it really so long ago?

    • #22
  23. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Paul Erickson:We must drive foreigners crazy* with our constantly changing taboo terms. English is hard enough to learn. I work every day with people for whom English is not their first language and deeply appreciate how well they can express themselves. The English-only speakers (myself included) make the extra effort to understand them, even when syntax is out of whack and they don’t use just the right word or tense.

    Blame capitalism.

    The greatest influence on popular usage of the English language are communications intended to make money, either by using the language to sell a product (advertising) or by selling the language as a product (books, magazines, tv shows, movies, songs, etc).

    As such, the primary concern of the message designers is not to convey meaning, but rather to create a message which is aesthetically and/or commercially appealing, and “appeal” is adjudicated by the audience rather than the message designer.

    As such, the commercial user of English will use the definitions, grammar, and lexicon of the audience, regardless of whether or not it is “historically correct usage”.

    Other languages have the luxury of being more formal because the majority of the commercial communications they receive are also in English (or translated from English).

    That’s not to say that the majority of the mass communications they receive are in English, of course. The majority of the mass communications they receive are almost certainly in their own language, but it’s less likely to be purely commercial communications. The print and broadcast communications in their own languages are more likely to be academic, journalistic, and/or government communications, which trend towards formalism because they come from established authority.

    • #23
  24. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Arahant:

    Misthiocracy:

    Arahant:What the heck is wrong with these Webster people?

    Webster’s definitions are a description of how words are most commonly used in the United States at the time of an edition’s publication, according to how the word is most often used in contemporary texts (whether written or broadcast).

    Understood. But if we go through so many changes of definition that the preferred term of 35 years ago is at least two iterations behind, we have no language left. I already said that the preferred term in 1980 was “mental retardation.” Let me share another:

    Afro-American: adj. of Negro Americans, their culture, etc. —n. a Negro American

    The term African-American hadn’t even made the dictionary yet. This was a dictionary put out the year Reagan was elected. Was it really so long ago?

    Language is a technology, and it follows similar rules as other technologies.

    Look at how much technology in general has changes in 35 years. Why would one expect language to be any different?

    Demanding that a word’s definition remain constant over that timespan is little different from demanding that all automobiles be designed the same way as 35 years ago, otherwise the very idea of what constitutes an “automobile” is meaningless.

    • #24
  25. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Misthiocracy: Other languages have the luxury of being more formal because the majority of the commercial communications they receive are also in English (or translated from English).

    That’s not to say that the majority of the mass communications they receive are in English, of course. The majority of the mass communications they receive are almost certainly in their own language, but it’s less likely to be purely commercial communications. The print and broadcast communications in their own languages are more likely to be academic, journalistic, and/or government communications, which trend towards formalism because they come from established authority.

    Most languages also have a body which establishes standards. English does not. Which is part of why English is so dynamic. It is also why English eats other languages’ lunches.

    • #25
  26. Spin Coolidge
    Spin
    @Spin

    Mike H:I thought I kept it pretty civil. I tried to explain that you weren’t necessarily doing anything wrong. The world is full of unreasonable people and it’s usually better to let them have their way, even when they’re in the wrong. I know this is antithetical to most conservative instincts, but it works almost all the time.

    Spin: Political correctness has created a culture of communicative laziness.

    I find this an interesting claim since political correctness, pretty much by definition, makes communication more difficult. You have to find another way to describe someone other than by their most obvious trait.

    When you find yourself wanting to use a word like that you should ask yourself whether it’s worth communicating in the first place, not simply whether or not it is true. Where’s the line between political correctness and simple politeness? It’s always changing, and perhaps often seems unnecessary, but these are the challenges we face living in a community of incredibly differing people.

    As I said over on Facebook, I refuse to let someone dictate to me what I mean when I say something.

    PS – Your comments weren’t what got me jacked up.

    • #26
  27. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Misthiocracy:Language is a technology, and it follows similar rules as other technologies.

    Look at how much technology in general has changes in 35 years. Why would one expect language to be any different?

    Creating new inventions for new niches is one thing. Creating new inventions that are less effective than what they replace is a different situation.

    • #27
  28. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Arahant:

    Misthiocracy:Other languages have the luxury of being more formal because the majority of the commercial communications they receive are also in English (or translated from English).

    That’s not to say that the majority of the mass communications they receive are in English, of course. The majority of the mass communications they receive are almost certainly in their own language, but it’s less likely to be purely commercial communications. The print and broadcast communications in their own languages are more likely to be academic, journalistic, and/or government communications, which trend towards formalism because they come from established authority.

    Most languages also have a body which establishes standards. English does not. Which is part of why English is so dynamic. It is also why English eats other languages’ lunches.

    I argue that other languages have standards bodies BECAUSE the majority of their usage is non-commercial, unlike English. When the majority of mass communications comes from established authorities, it’s natural that an authority be established to regulate the language.

    • #28
  29. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Arahant:

    Misthiocracy:Language is a technology, and it follows similar rules as other technologies.

    Look at how much technology in general has changes in 35 years. Why would one expect language to be any different?

    Creating new inventions for new niches is one thing. Creating new inventions that are less effective than what they replace is a different situation.

    Who are you to say that a 2014 Chevy Malibu is “more effective” than a 1972 Chevy Malibu? Clearly the definition of “Chevy Malibu” has changed immensely in that time. Whether one is “better” than the other is entirely up to the observer.

    • #29
  30. Spin Coolidge
    Spin
    @Spin

    AUMom:

    There will be people who continue to use retarded because they can. Go for it. Just do not excuse or try to validate it unless done in ignorance. Excuse me, after I cry for the lost adulthood of my daughter, I’ll go hug her and do something fun. She’ll think it’s wonderful and won’t know the pain.

    So we are clear, I do not intend to use the word to describe anyone.  Neither am I suggesting we use the word in the presence of people who find it offensive.  What I object to is someone who applies a moral judgement to someone who does use the word, when the word is used innocently.

    As a parent of a child with whatever condition someone might refer to as “retarded”, what would do you think should be used as a general reference to that condition or any condition similar?

    If I were to refer to someone who had Downs syndrome, I might say “Jim and Betty have a child with Downs syndrome.”   If I did not know what condition they had, and the word retarded (offensive though it may be) might generally describe the condition, what other word or phrase should I use?  I remember I volunteered to drive for a men’s retreat, and the pastor asked if I would take a guy with me.  He said, in a hushed tone, “Just so you know, he’s, uh, you know, special ed.”  Now, referring to someone as special ed can easily be considered offensive.  But the pastor didn’t know what to say, because he isn’t a doctor and doesn’t know what condition the man has.  But he wanted me to know that the guy was, well, retarded.  Or mentally disabled.  Or mentally handicapped.  Or developmentally delayed.  Or whatever word or phrase it is that describes his condition that isn’t offensive.

    I’ve been told that every one of those phrases is offensive.  So I quite literally do not know what word or phrase is to be used.  So what am I to do?  Pretend that the guy doesn’t have a condition?  You may say “Why does it matter?”  Well,  in many ways it doesn’t.  But in some contexts it’s appropriate to make reference to a person by including that condition.  Since there isn’t a word I can use that someone doesn’t get offended by, I’m at a loss.

    • #30
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