If you control the language, you control people’s minds.
There is a type of political, social, and cultural activism that has no popular name. It is controlled in the background by nefarious forces. It is a form of mind control. It can be used for censorship, but a more pernicious form. Rather than banning undesired speech, it makes such speech impossible. Because it removes and warps our very tools of thought. If you think in language, like most people do, then you are a potential victim.
The concept in linguistics called linguistic relativity or Whorfianism states that (Wikipedia): “the structure of language effects the speakers’ worldview or cognition.” In other words, language controls how people think.
My point is that if you think in language, how could it not? But beyond that, language is how we learn about the world, how to categorize things and ideas, and make sense of the confusing mess of reality.
The fact that the term “semantic” implies “trivial” is itself a semantic issue. What I call “semantic activism” is the single most significant, influential, dangerous and important form of activism.
Control the language, control minds.
No single example can prove my point; I will give several:
Grammar and Phrasing
My first example is stolen from this (otherwise terrible) speech. Consider this rundown of sentences:
- John beat Mary
- Mary was beaten by John
- Mary was beaten
- Mary was battered
- Marry is a battered woman
What is being said has not changed between 1 and 5, but the focus of the sentence has shifted from John to Mary. This changes how one might approach the problem between the sentences. First, it’s “what’s wrong with John?” while in the ladder, “how should we treat Mary?”
Some tend to imagine that other languages are simply English with the vocabulary swapped out. Though this is more true of languages similar to English, other languages can have vastly different grammar. The John and Marry example shows the effect of mere re-wording within the confines of English. Is there a question that, if a language has different baked-in grammatical rules, that can affect mental perception?
A euphemism is a polite substitute for a harsher word. Here’ s a list I made of examples:
die —> pass away
exterminator —> pest control
poor —> low income
lady —> woman
waiter —> server
musician —> artist
stripper —> dancer
slum, ghetto —> inner city
handicapped, crippled —> disabled
victim —> survivor
black —> urban
white —> western
Marxist —> cultural studies
old —> senior
homosexual —> pride
Euphemisms are a form of soft (usually self-imposed) censorship. You are replacing the more direct, honest word with a neutered equivalent.
You may be inclined to think that the words used don’t matter as long as the content of what’s being said is the same. In practice, people can’t help but be influenced by how words read on paper and sound on your tongue. If you poll people on their opinion of “free healthcare,” “single-payer healthcare,” “government run healthcare,” and “socialized healthcare,” you will get four different results.
Famously, the Nazis were big proponents of euphemisms. From here:
genocide —> “cleanse”
holocaust —> “final solution” to the “Jewish problem”
murder —> euthanasia, “special action”, “evacuation”
ghetto —> Jewish “resident district”
incarceration —> “protective custody”
death camps —> “preferential” camps
gas chamber —> “bath house”
gassing —> “special treatment”
If censorship was ineffective, authoritarian governments wouldn’t do it.
The term “racism” carries a specific connotation: neo-Nazis, klansmen, skinheads, neo-confederates, racial slurs, and so on. However, critical race theorists employ a much more expansive definition of the term.
According to many modern academics, anyone who participates in a structurally racist society is racist by (directly or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise) supporting racist systems. They also take for granted the premise that Western society is structurally racist. This academic definition of racism implies that every white person in America is, technically, “racist.”
Personally, I don’t care much how people define words in a theoretical and academic context. But the problem is that this very expansive definition, when it enters the mainstream, allows activists to expansively accuse of “racism,” and once the accusation sticks, only then the word reverts back to the more specific connotation, with all of the baggage associated: skinheads, Nazis, KKK, etc.
The worst-case-scenario is when term that has been watered-down to be too-liberally usable, but retains it’s immense stigma. This is the bait-and-switch. The term is so fluid as to alternate at will between being the easiest thing to call someone, and also the worst thing to call someone.
Of course, racism is a real thing, and it’s good we have a word for it. But any politically useful word will eventually be co-opted unless we resist.
You might ask, “why not just use the dictionary definition?” I have addressed this topic before, but it’s not that simple. The dictionary is designed as a general reference, not a basis for first principles. Dictionary definitions are intentionally vague so as to provide wiggle-room for divergent usages.
I’m in hot enough water already, so I might as well discuss the term “islamaphobia.” Google defines it:
Dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force.
That definition alone is a bait-and-switch. First it says prejudice against “Islam”, then it says prejudice against “Muslims.” Well, which is it?
If the answer is “both,” that’s a very big problem, because I consider those to be two very different things. I can agree that it is bigotry to dislike any person for their religion. But “Islam” is not a type of person, it is a set of ideas, and all ideas should be open to criticism. What about the atheist who is prejudiced against all religions? Is he “islamaphobic” for counting Islam among the religions he scorns?
It’s “islamaphobia,” not “muslimphobia,” which implies fear of Islam specifically. But once an islamaphobia accusation sticks, it carries all of the baggage associated with dislike of Muslims. In this way, an Islamaphobia accusation is an argument: “if you scorn Islam, you scorn Muslims.” That is an argument I do not condone; it should not be considered bigotry to scorn any religion, or any other belief set of that matter.
Finally, chances are you have encountered the following feminist argument, and I can’t help but take a few shots at it:
Do you support equality for women? If so, congratulations, you’re a feminist! If not, get on board with the 21st century!
The “definition of feminism” was and is a common talking-point in feminist circles. Trouble is it’s wrong.
Once you investigate what third-wave feminists actually believe, the beliefs of the people making the argument, it goes much beyond mere “equality for women.” Either that, or how modern feminists define “equality for women” is vastly different than how most people define “equality for women.” It turns out, feminist ideology, even at it’s best, contains a whole set of baggage that needs to be evaluated on a case-by case basis. The definition of “Feminism” is a bait and switch.
If you’d like to explore this theme further, read my article on third order thinking.
Word pollution by association
Of course, words do not exist independently; they interact. An example is the distinction between “sex” vs “gender.” Social scientists, unlike many people, do not consider these terms to be synonyms. They believe (in essence): sex is hardware, physiology, body – while gender is software, behavior, performance.
But that is mind-body-dualism, which is a fallacy. Behavior is controlled by the brain, and the brain is just another organ, just another body part. It makes no sense to divide the brain (gender) from the rest of the body (sex).
So why do social scientists insist on it? Because the field of social science wants to suggest that human behavior is entirely determined to culture, not genetics. This is why they hate evolutionary psychology so much. Social scientists can’t discredit that we are evolved creatures, but if they by slight-of-hand manage to slice out behavior, they can suggest that behavior is down to society, not biology.
Well, I refuse to accept that distinction. Either gender just means “sex,” or gender is not a real thing. With respect to any conception of gender different from sex, I declare: gender doesn’t exist. (Sex does).
Here’s another example. As I mentioned before, I do not believe the term “hate speech” should exist. That’s not just to say that it’s often used inappropriately, but that I don’t think it should even exist. Certainly, hateful speech is real; all the more reason “hate speech” is not a needed term. My complaint is that that term hate speech pollutes by association the older term, “free speech,” by positioning itself as its opposite. In reality, free speech isn’t the opposite of anything. Free speech is not a type of speech, it’s a principle.
Accuse me of wanting to cut away at language, but I only wish to preserve language’s utility. You are not considering the collateral effect: “hate speech” cuts away at the term “free speech.” People cannot help but incorrectly associate the two.
Many so-called “free speech defenders” passionately argue the barriers of what should and should not be considered hate speech. They are fools. They are accepting the frame of their opponents. Why can they not say instead, “hate speech is simply a bad term and should never be uttered?” Are they scared of coming across as anti-intellectual? To that, I rebut that the true anti-intellectuals are those who wish to impose their contrived terms like “hate speech” onto our precious language. In an effort to codify this notion, I will henceforth refer to fabricated political words as “propaganda words.” I believe that some words, by their mere existence, can be inherently propagandistic. if you doubt this, consider the word “Aryan.”
Politically Loaded Terminology
People, by their word choices, signal their philosophy, just under the surface. I can skim a text for certain choice words to briefly gauge the political philosophy being advocated, because some terms by their mere existence smuggle in sociopolitical assumptions.
As apolitical examples, if you so much as know the definition of the “gambler’s fallacy,” or “confirmation bias,” you know specific pieces of information. You know that these are phenomenons that affect people’s perceptions, and negatively (unless you’re a contrarian).
A single word can be a political argument. The definition of term “toxic masculinity” assumes certain social science premises. If you use the term toxic masculinity, you are probably saying that you accept those premises. You are probably a left-winger, because there are left-wing arguments hidden in the term’s definition.
Smuggling assumptions in a definition is useful if you want to construct a hierarchy of knowledge. Just be aware how, no matter the surface speech content, your words are each independently exponents of philosophies, like it or not.
To say, “hate speech” or “islamaphobia” smuggles in the assumption that hate speech is a distinct and clearly identifiable category of speech, or that scorn for Islam is a form of bigotry.
To take this principle further, as a thought experiment we can categorize words as “left-leaning” or “right-leaning.” It has even been suggested that we can write a program to scan the text from news platforms to calculate, in an an autonomous way, their political biases.
privilege, affirmative action, racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, xenophobia, feminism, equality, respect, tolerance, diversity, inclusiveness, openness, pride, love, refugee, compassion, empathy, understanding, gun control, LGBT, unity, progress, beyond, disabled, new vs old, hope, wall street, corporate greed, banks, corporations, environment, mass shootings, programs, tax breaks, social, social justice, climate change, undocumented immigrant, police brutality, (anti) fascism, (anti) hate, same-sex marriage, discrimination, multiculturalism, GMOs, organic crops, individuals, disenfranchised, marginalized, gentrification, civil rights, (taxes) on the rich, identities, prejudice, fairness, old white guy
back to work, jobs, migrant, regulations, family, earn, America, sacred, military, troops, freedom, free speech, strong borders, illegal immigrant, illegal alien, responsibility, economy, taxes, budget, balanced budget, debt, spending, growth, small businesses, energy, manufacturing, God, religious freedom, religious rights, faith, government, middle america, hurting businesses, real opportunity, states rights, gun right, 2nd amendment, security, terror, terrorism, veterans, welfare, law and order, (anti) communism, (anti) socialism, traditional marriage, tradition, (anti) political correctness, islamism, jihad, radical muslims, radical islam, tough on crime, american dream, individuals, leftists, assimilation, death tax
social justice/SJW words:
victim, oppression, abuse, harassment, misogyny, internalized misogyny, (social) constructs, society structure, patriarchy, wage gap, rape culture, white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, otherkin, fatfobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, ethnocentrism, intersectionality, mansplaining, manspreading, manterrupting, people of color, gender vs sex vs gender roles, toxic masculinity, cis, judgmental, cultural appropriation, dominant culture, fat pride, fat activist, fat shaming, trigger warnings, shaming, imperialism, colonialism, stereotypes, hate crimes, hate speech, hate, microagressions, black lives matter, whitewashing, underrepresentation, problematic, objectification, hyper-sexualized, catcalling, heteronormative, safe spaces, queer, equity, voices to be heard, hegemony, stigmatization, labels, fluid, binary, performative, convention, body image, (gender) imbalances
globalism, SJWs, neoliberals, mainstream media, tyranny, hoax, false flag, alpha, cuck, red pill, agenda, western civilization, degeneracy, pathological altruism, recreational outrage, libtard
The most dogmatic the ideologies always have the most abstruse the lingo. In an evangelical church, you have to pretend the preacher is speaking English, because what you actually get is a mess of religious terminology. Unnecessarily complicated language is designed to shield off outsiders.
The Bigger Picture
Thus far, I have perhaps depicted semantic activism as something slimy or deceptive. But whether it is or not, I wish to make clear: if you want to have any influence over politics or culture, you must do it. Create politically useful words, create politically useful definitions, and always take advantage of the vagueness of language. If you fail at this, your enemies will not. While you argue passionately, your rivals will control the framework of debate; they manipulate the terms you argue with.
I have attempted a lot of semantic activism on this website. I have pushed for terms like genetic pattern, zip-ties, ear plugs, third order thinking, genericification, hoard of leftovers, and complainitude (I didn’t say I’m the best at this). I have also tried to shed more light on terms like surrogate activity, network externality, social capital, the adaptive valley, signaling, antifragility, plus push my understanding of zero sum and culture. Even the title of this post is an example: the term “semantic activism.”
What I wish to elucidate by the term “semantic activism” is how often it goes unnoticed that an argument is actually (and maybe unknowingly) an attempt to influence language itself. “X is true” is code for “I wish to advocate for any change in the understanding of terms that would make X true.”
When I say, “this thing should be considered art,” what I am really saying is, “a good definition of art should include this thing.” The majority of political arguments are like this.
So much of what we call “subjectiveness” is just the vagueness of language. “Lettuce is tasty.” What is meant by “tasty?” To whom? “Women are better than men.” What is meant by “better?”
Here’s what has wracked my brain: semantic activists rarely say that influence of language is what they’re attempting, as if they either don’t understand that, or are in strategic denial. Some savvy activists discuss the role of language, but rarely while they are making their arguments. I wish I more frequently heard an argument in these terms, “my definition of this term is a lot more useful than yours!”
Maybe they think their activism is more effective if they do not acknowledge how it is done, or they do not want to tip off their opponents to their tactics. Statements are more convincing if stated as eternal truths rather than language-dependent. What’s more, the bait-and-switch tactic only works on those who are ignorant that you are doing it.
There is another possibility: semantic activism works best if you don’t even know you’re doing it. After all, as I said before, the best liars will lie to themselves.