Monday, February 22, 2016

Bringing a Dictionary to a Gunfight



There’s been something bugging me for a bit. It seems these days that our world is more malleable than it used to be. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily bad. For instance,  the gender roles that have been etched in stone since time began are not as useful as they once were. Notice, I say gender, not sex. I speak of the idea that a family where mom wins bread and dad keeps house is somehow upside down. 

But, beyond that, there is an idea that all concepts are fluid and able to be redefined to meet the current situation. This makes me crazy. Yes, you can believe what you want to believe in each given situation. That’s your prerogative. I don’t like labels, so I tend to side with a variety of groups depending on the cause, I get that.  But, when it comes to describing these actions, it seems that too many are ready to throw out the dictionary! Here’s what I mean.
I have had several conversations lately where a person wanted to peg me as belonging to one group or another, but when a perfectly accurate term is used to describe their own stated position, they balk. Turns out the term that describes them has baggage they don’t want to carry, so instead of either finding a new term, or changing their position to one that is more palatable to their sensitivity, they inform me that I can no longer apply the traditional definition of the word. 

What word? Well, here’s a short list of words I find commonly redefined to make the wearer feel more comfortable with who they see themselves as being. “Self identification” I think the term is.
Socialist
Conservative
Equal
Democratic
Liberty
Fair
Capitalism
Entitlement
Fascist
Rights
Christian
I think you get the idea, I won’t bore you with the definitions. Worried you are not using them correctly? Just type “define” and the word into the device you are reading this on and you can find out. It’s really not hard.
Why does it matter? Well, we are fighting over not just the future of our nation, but more and more what happens to us happens globally. Maybe it’s just me. See, before I went to first grade, I asked my mother, a teacher, to teach me to read. We started when I was four. Once I had the basics down, I noticed there were a lot of words I didn’t quite understand, so my dad suggested I learn to use a dictionary. I took to it like a fish to water.
In first grade I was the kid who always finished work early and then got bored. So, I took to opening the dictionary that stood at the back of the room to a random page and reading.
We don’t agree on much, it seems, in this modern world of ours. We fight over whether the government should be bigger or smaller, whether or not we should be forced to accept medical treatments, whether we need a wall, the list goes on.
Here’s the thing, way back in about 750 BC the idea of self governance came into vogue in this little thing called the Roman Empire. They were the originators of an idea that made this possible, called parliamentary procedure. It allowed them to debate fiercely, without resulting to duels. It made sure that the minority still had a voice and that all sides could be given an equal hearing. It’s far from perfect, but it beats a fight to the death any day.
This concept, that a law could supersede passion has allowed some marvelous things to happen. It made compromise something that did not have to happen at the end of a sword. It made it possible for us to share our viewpoint in a forum that also forces us to at least pretend to listen to our opponent. It’s a good thing and it deserves respect.
So, what does that have to do with my aversion to mushy definitions? When words can be used in new ways and the new meaning (frequently, it seems lately, diametrically opposed to the original definition) it becomes impossible to engage in peaceful discussions. You can never really fully comprehend your opponent, if they allow definitions to shift, or even force them to.
It doesn’t just effect the current conversation either, oh no. Someone coming into a conversation with the new definition in mind now wields power over all of history. How? They can no co-opt the precedents of history. By applying their new definition, they can cast new, unwarranted, light on actions of the past and define their own current actions based on this new, artificial understanding.
Now, I do understand that definition comes from usage, and not the other way around. I know that words meanings change over time, but what we are witnessing is more than that IMO. So, what do I propose? Well, first of all, you’ll find me reminding people, as pedantic as it sounds, that words do have meanings. There is a word for almost anything. They can choose the right word, but often, as I said, the baggage of that word makes them uncomfortable.
So, what’s a person to do? I don’t know that there is anything to be done about it. But, understanding that this is a thing, that this happens all the time, may help. When you feel confused, ask the person what they mean by that term. If you want to be a dork like me, correct them if you want. (it hasn’t done much good, but it makes me feel better)

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