Owning the Meaning of Words
Mar 4, 2011

Owning the Meaning of Words

Words have enormous power in society and the evolving meaning of words says much about the underlying history that is unfolding. By changing the connotations of words (or reassessing their original connotations) we can change the framing of the political debates.

The greatest example of this in my view is the word 'nigger'. Historically, this is one of the most offensive words in our language and represents centuries of brutal hatred and oppression. It still retains this meaning in part and unfortunately is still used in this way. However, it is no longer the exclusive use. The black community has taken back the word, internalized it and made it their own. It is now often acceptable in certain black circles to use the word and far from the original connotations it can now symbolize black pride, camaraderie, and a symbol of their freedom from oppression in history. Not only was much (but of course not all) of the oppression dismantled through abolition, the civil rights movement and the like but the word that most symbolized that oppression was taken back too and now is owned by the black community not the racists. This is a powerful message.

Some of the great rhetorical successes of the right has been the demonizing of words like 'feminism', 'environmentalist', and even 'activist'. What is conjured up in our minds eye is the results of deliberate campaigns to make us think of some form of man hating, tree hugging social deviants. What is lost in the stereotypes is the core messages these words ought to convey.

The word 'liberal' has faced a similar procedure. Indeed, many democratic and left wing politicians seem to try and shy quite clear of the word favoring things like 'moderate' or even 'progressive'. The idea has set in that simply being a liberal is inherently bad and what is sad is not just the right and their followers but that the left buys into and starts avoiding the term instead of owning up to it explaining, loudly, just exactly what liberal values are and to be proud of them.

I consider myself progressive based on an attitude of necessary change not a fixed set of policies like the progressive caucus in the US, but I feel that the rise of the word progressive as a self identifying positive descriptor is partially explained by the declining perception of the word liberal. This has even been decried in the right as liberals hiding behind a new word and I think they are right. What is interesting is that classical liberalism involves most of the core aspects of western society people all over the political spectrum believe in, and even modern political positions associated with liberalism such as social security and the like enjoy widespread appeal. It is the perfect word to take back and own.

Perhaps one of the most important words to transform the connotations of is the word 'muslims'. Through constant repetition this word has become innately tied to the word 'terrorist' in our society. This coupling paves the way for enormous amounts of bigotry. Through consistently presenting a countervailing message I think it is possible to instead emphasize the peaceful and empathetic sides to Islam and truly bring out the humanity of Muslims opposed to the violent stereotype that is so pervasive.

These battles to reframe the basic connotations of words have significant importance in influencing the political discourse and reflect the underling conflicts involved. We ought to embrace these words as our own and stand up, proudly and loudly, for the virtues that they stand for. These effects strongly reinforce themselves for one does not just argue for ones own virtuosity when proclaiming to be, say, a feminist and explaining why that is good; by proxy, one is arguing for the virtuosity of the entire group. 

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