You’ll probably think this totally nuts coming from me but, I’ve been thinking about words lately. Shocker, I know. More specifically, the use of emotional slogans and hashtags to gather followers of our causes instead of sound reasoning and logical discussion of ideas.
The following few paragraphs may feel pretty muddled, but I have a few ideas rolling around in my head. They want to connect somehow, I can feel it, but I can’t get them to dance. I’m going to go ahead and throw this unpolished gem out into the universe the way it is and see what happens.
Here’s the thought that came to me while I was in the shower the other day. Lucky for you, I had my notebook in the bathroom just in case this happened, and I was able to capture it!
Two- and three-word slogans are great for deciding which cola to buy or which fast food burgers are the best, not your stance on issues like civil rights and immigration policies. It may feel like you’re rallying people to your cause with a hashtag this or that, but I think it does more harm than good. Good government stems from an intelligent and informed population of citizens, not a war between propaganda and advertising slogans.
The trouble is that, to have a decent conversation about ideas, we need a common language with a broad vocabulary. My concern is that I don’t seem to be able to increase mine no matter how hard I try.
As you have probably noticed, I read a lot and all the experts say that is the best way to increase your vocabulary and I’m sure it does. Over the years, I have learned more words and their meanings. I can usually infer what a word means from its context and if I can’t, or even if I can but am curious about the details, I’ll look it up. But I typically don’t use those words in my everyday speech, or even in my writing.
Why? I think it’s because I’m afraid I won’t be understood by the people around me, not because they (you, my dear reader) are stupid, but because our common vocabulary has become limited across the board and I want to be understood by as many people as possible. When I try to keep it simple, so more people understand, it comes out bland like cafeteria food, mainstream movies, and mass market paperback novels.
Another reason could be that if one doesn’t use a language often enough, one loses the ability to use it, even our native tongue. I don’t speak or write the words I learn through books often enough, so my brain tosses them aside and they become buried and forgotten.
There are a lot of ideas that get lost these days because we just don’t have enough common words to discuss and digest the things that are going on around us and in us. One word is used to describe a multitude of things. Depending on who is using a word and what context they are using it in, the same word can mean even more than what is even listed in our dictionary.
I have an example.
“Love” and “friend” are the words that have brought this to the forefront of my mind the past few weeks, although the trouble spans across our entire language. The thoughts have picked up speed since I started reading “Love & Friendship” by Allan Bloom earlier this month.
What does love mean? Anything you want it to. I love the cat when it purrs, the flowers in my garden, the candy my friend brought me, the woman at the grocery store that helped me reach the box of noodles that was above my head. I love my husband, my mother, my kids, my friend. I love hiking and reading and checking Facebook for likes.
Love…is a myriad of things. So, when I say, “I love you!” you really have no idea what that means.
And what about the word, “friend?” I think Facebook ruined that one, to be completely honest. If I ruled the world, they’d have to use a different word. But it’s always been a bit dubious. What a “friend” means is completely subjective, and you can’t hold others accountable for not behaving as friend should, unless you sat down with them and agreed about the terms and conditions beforehand.
What does this word stuff have to do with political slogans and hashtags? Everything.
We are a diverse culture, a combination of a myriad of backgrounds. Every time we write a sentence, we mean one thing and anyone that reads it brings their background into interpreting it. What I mean as sarcasm, you take as a serious attack. What I mean as kind, you take an unwanted advance, and someone else takes as an invitation to lord knows what.
When we dumb down issues with a short slogan to attract people’s attention, we aren’t giving the full spectrum of what our cause is attempting to solve. Instead, we’re attracting eyes with bright colors and flashy tags. Yes, some people will look and think, “Hells yes! I’m in!” but they have no idea what they are really backing. And others will see it and immediately be turned off and walk away simply because they don’t identify with that sliver of the message when they might have been staunch supporters.
Yes, I’m deliberately avoiding using actual slogans, but you know what they are. We see them all around us all day long, on every online platform, t-shirt, shop window, and car bumper. I’m not using them because the moment I say one, everyone reading aligns themselves for or against everything else I say. I do it myself.
What’s the solution? I’m not sure. I thought it was increasing my vocabulary, assuming positive intent, and trying to understand the ideas behind the slogans people were splashing all over their profiles. I had started with asking people to define what they meant when I see a slogan used, but that got me some pretty nasty replies, which is why I’m writing this.
Are we not aware that words have different meanings to different people? If I don’t know your motives or intentions, how do I find out without asking? How do we begin to understand each other if we’re discouraged from asking for clarification?
Lately, I’ve found it harder and harder to communicate with people, especially online. I had begun to think that we’d lost a common language, now I think it’s something else. Maybe we’re losing our empathy for each other. It seems we’re assuming that everyone is attacking us, that we are the victims of ill intent everywhere we turn.
I honestly think it’s a simple case of mass miscommunication. We all think we’re speaking the same language but we’re not. It’s starting to look like a modern-day Tower of Babel story.
I’ve read some great books that have helped me ask more questions and make an attempt to see the bigger picture. “The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age” by Robert Alter and “How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor” by Thomas C. Foster are the first two that come to mind.