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Treading Wisely in Semantic Quicksand

Treading Wisely in Semantic Quicksand

Be careful little mouth what you say.

While this pithy little line originally formed part of a children’s song, it strikes me as increasingly wise counsel for adults navigating a dictionary full of fast-changing meanings.

To be sure, the meaning of words has always been changing. Awful no longer means something deserving of awe or admiration. Neither does naughty suggest the idea of being needy, of having naught or nothing. Another, better-known, example is of course the word gay.

But when I speak of semantic quicksand, I don’t mean the naturally changing meaning of words. I mean the artificially changing meaning of words.

Though this phenomenon long predates my time, I was first alerted to it in connection with the word tolerance.

I could have sworn the word tolerance meant being willing to endure opinions, beliefs or behaviors I didn’t particularly like. But then it dawned on me that people with power were using the word tolerance to demand my enthusiastic celebration of things I did not approve of.

I’m sure you have your own story to illustrate how the lights came on for you.

Now I see this trend everywhere. Sometimes I feel like Inigo Montoya from the cult classic The Princess Bride when he got wound up by Vizzini’s constant misuse of the word inconceivable.

Let me share with you some of the more notorious examples out there.

Genocide. Merriam-Webster defines genocide as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.”

I don’t claim exhaustive knowledge about the Israel-Hamas War, nor can I defend every action taken by the Israelis. But a military that is at pains to minimize civilian casualties while targeting an enemy that admits to using its own civilians as human shields can hardly be accused of genocide.

Claims of a transgender genocide likewise play fast and loose with the facts. Putting fuel on these claims, the Biden administration recently mourned 26 killed transgender Americans in 2023. Certainly, loss of human life is tragic, but it’s worth noting that the Biden administration ignored the fact that transgender Americans are statistically five times safer than Americans in general.

The U.S. State Department has recognized eight genocides since the Holocaust. How do events in Gaza or in LGBT circles compare to these? What are we saying to victims of the Holocaust or the Holodomor when we co-opt the word genocide for short-term political gain?

Violence. In recent years, it has become fashionable to characterize certain types of speech as violence. If words inflict psychological damage, so the argument goes, their impact is as devastating as physical violence.

But I have noticed that this argument is a one-way street. The same people making such a claim address their ideological opponents with similarly “violent” speech, and do so with impunity. In fact, as we saw during the 2020 BLM and Antifa riots, the same characters defended actual violence—and they defended it as speech.

In certain quarters, the double standards run so deep that, as some have quipped, right-wing speech is violence, while left-wing violence is speech!

Far-right. Fascist. Nazi. All of these words have specific, historical meanings that matter. Using them to sling mud at one’s enemies might feel momentarily cathartic, but it has the ultimate effect of downplaying the evil perpetrated by the actual Nazis and fascists of history.

Elon Musk and Joe Rogan are thoroughgoing libertarians. By any definition, Jordan Peterson is a classical liberal. Journalists like Michael Shellenberger, Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, and Bari Weiss have spent most of their professional lives in progressive circles, not conservative ones. Yet all of them have now been dubbed “far-right” by the chattering class, simply for opposing various tenets of wokeness.

Diversity supposedly guarantees variety. In practice, however, it means people who look different but think alike.

Equity is supposed to mean fairness. In modern parlance, it means making up for past discrimination with present discrimination.

Inclusion is just as bad. What it really means today is exclusion for dissenters.

It is for all of these reasons that I don’t practice so-called “pronoun hospitality.” I will always be kind and courteous to people I meet. But in my writings and in my conversations, I refuse to surrender objective truth to passing fads and falsehoods.

Navigating the semantic quicksand of the modern world takes discernment and tenacity.

If you ever find yourself semantically cornered or confused, take a leaf out of Inigo Montoya’s book and ask, “What do you mean when you say that word?”

The stakes are higher than just ceding semantic territory. This is a battle for virtue and for truth.

As the prophet Isaiah said, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).

Image credit: Pexels

Kurt Mahlburg
Kurt Mahlburg

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