For those who might be interested, I’m taking a class on rhetoric and digital media, and as a class project had to create a piece of digital art. I decided to do a digital poem that was a riff on Taroko Gorge by Nick Montfort. It’s my own mash-up of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, rather appropriately titled The Dark Side of the Wall. Fell free to have a look, critique it, love it, hate it, just tell me what you think in the comments.
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume I’m going to offend some folks with this post, most likely some of the same people I offended when I addressed my issues with feminism, but I’d like to state for the record that I am not blaming feminism for this one. I am blaming cowardice and stupidity. If you are offended by anything I have to say in this post, I will gladly address your concerns, but I wanted to get that out there first.
So I recently found out that the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill has removed the word “freshmen” from official documents to adopt more “gender inclusive language”. Point of fact, according to the linked article the policy change occurred in 2009, but then I don’t stay abreast of every action I find idiotic in the world, just the ones that come knocking on my doorstep. It’s not even that I find this terribly shocking in and of itself, since this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of something like this happening, it’s the fact that something like this is still happening in 2009.
Look, I love the English language, and I get as much as anyone that words have power. I use them every day, in my job and in my hobby (you’re reading the latter right now, if I haven’t offended you too much already). But there has to be a point at which we say that while words have meaning, there is such a thing as reading too much meaning into words. I realize the deconstructionists out there will disagree with me, as will certain others, but where do we draw the line?
I cite as an example, and the reason I say “why is this still a thing?” the exact same joke I made when this whole question of language use first came to my attention… back in 1993. That’s right, about twenty years ago. At the time I was joking about the word “humankind”. Obviously this word is offensive, as it contains the word “man” and is meant to refer to all homo sapiens. Therefore we should change it to hupersonkind. However even this is offensive, as it contains the word “son”, which is still gender discriminative, as well as making assumptions about family roles. That simply won’t do. We should therefore make it into “huperchildkind”. The word “kind” may remain as it is an affirmation, and something we should all strive toward being.
Ridiculous? I should say so. And that was my point. Any attempt to change a word simply because it contains within it a masculine form which, within the established rules of the English language is the gender-neutral form, is just that: ridiculous. I’m not aware of attempts to change European languages that default to masculine and feminine forms for inanimate objects, although if those exist I would consider them equally silly. The rules of language may be arbitrary, but they exist and we follow them because they work. Taking offense where none is intended or necessary is just looking for excuses to be angry at the whole damn world for not bending to your whims, and frankly there are better windmills to tilt at.
This is not to say I oppose all attempts to make language gender-neutral. While I abhor such ludicrous neologisms as “actron”, I freely accept the interchangeable use of the gender-neutral term “actor” being applied to men and women who ply the same trade, and a magician is equally as talented (or not) regardless of gender. There are also times and places where gender differences are useful in one’s title; or perhaps you are one of the folks who don’t care if you are served by a masseur or a masseuse. None of these, however, are relevant to the issue above; that is simply a matter of cowardice and stupidity, blindly flailing about in a craven attempt to please all and offend none. The end result is often the exact opposite.
Words matter. They have power. They have meaning. They can be used for so many things, to create joy or sorrow, to enlighten or spread ignorance and fear. So long as we give in to the forces who would take away our words in the name of cowardice and stupidity, all we have left is
This is going to seem like an extremely petty post to some, perhaps most people, but I really need to get this out there. If I hear one more person conflate “opinion” with “belief” I am going to scream. I have very little rational basis for this; after all, if one relies on the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the two words (and I often do), they are almost functionally identical. OED, you have failed me for the last time. AGAIN!
But in many cases language is more about the connotation of words rather than their literal definition. When we speak of opinions the connotation is that there is a connection, however tangential, to the real, provable world of facts. That’s not to say all opinions are supported by facts; “in my opinion, vanilla ice cream is the best ice cream” is a valid opinion. It is not supported by facts, unless you consider the existence of vanilla ice cream to be factual support. But it at least has a direct connection to the world of provable facts (i.e. I can prove that vanilla ice cream exists.) Even professional opinions need to have some connection, no matter how tangential and tenuous (and hear I’m thinking of lawyers) to the world of real, provable facts.
Belief is a different matter. You can believe in anything you want, regardless of its relationship to the world of provable fact. “I believe in Santa Claus” is a valid statement of belief. “I don’t believe in love” is another. Neither has any connection to the world of provable fact (unless you put stock in either the official NORAD Santa tracker or the love tester at your local bar.)
Somewhat like the humble atom, the difference is small yet significant. When you claim it is your opinion that God exists, that is very different from saying you believe God exists. Your belief in the existence or non-existence of God is your own business, same as your belief in any entity that can’t be proven or disproven. But once you move it into the realm of opinion, you are asserting that it has at least a tangential relationship to the realm of provable fact, which it by definition does not. The same holds true for many other things that people state their “opinion” about.
This may seem like I’m “just arguing semantics”, and if you think I am, you’re right. And there’s another phrase I take umbrage with. Let’s see if the Oxford English Dictionary can redeem itself: “the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning.” Ah, now that’s the OED I’ve come to depend on to back up my righteous claims to moral superiority. But in all seriousness, saying “you’re just arguing semantics” is like saying “you’re just arguing economics” or “you’re just arguing law.” Words have meaning. Using them incorrectly results in hash brown goes flipped nuclear sauce. When we already have enough trouble communicating even when we use the same word (“Do you like me, or do you, you know, LIKE like me?”), we’ve got to start using the right word at the right time. It won’t save the world, but it will change a small part of it. At least, I believe it will.