Friday, September 30, 2005
Please Speak Differently... I Can't Understand You
It's clear that many words are not neutral in their usage. Words have a strict dictionary definition but they also have a cultural context, a real-world and real-time component. There are subtle and not so subtle meanings involved depending on the speaker and the audience. Sometimes words are codes intended to communicate disdain and ridicule. Nowhere is this more evident than in political discussion.
Take a word like "imperialism". This is a word generally associated with Communist, leftist, and anti-war rhetoric. Anyone using it in a descriptive way has a high probability of being generally sympathetic to those groups. Usually the only times you will hear the right-wing use the term will be to deny that it is an accurate or appropriate word to describe government actions or positions. In this sense, it is a very charged political word.
Imperialism, of course, has a literal definition. "1: imperial government, authority, or system. 2: the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation esp. by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas." (Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary) There shouldn't be any disagreement about its meaning and use. There is, though, because in a "democratic" society like the United States, there is strong aversion in much of the population to applying it to the US government. The US is not theoretically an empire therefore "imperial" isn't an accurate description. Of course, the US is a de facto empire, if not in name, but that is the point.
When one side hears the word, they immediately begin dismissing the speaker as being Communist or leftist. They are then able to discount all the surrounding arguments because they already know what they think of those groups and everything they stand for. This is the result of our division and alienation; we stop actually listening to each other.
The solution may be to find new ways of expressing ideas, new political rhetoric not as laden with assumptions.