How Language Divides Us

Right now, in 2021, the United States is seeing more political division than it has since the civil war. I could go on and on about how dangerous it is, how much I despise the two party system, and the hundreds of events that had led to where we are today. However, recently I’ve noticed one unique aspect of our political division problem, and it is rooted in our language.

Years ago, if you had asked me what the word “racism” meant, I would have answered with a broad description that encompasses any sort of dicrimination towards someone based on the color of their skin. Now, I do not know. With the George Floyd protests taking over U.S. media over this past summer, the idea of redefining racism is now in the spotlight. In simple terms, the new idea is that racism is only one way, from a group in power towards a minority group. I won’t go into too much depth about developing a new definition here because I am more interested in what this change in definition represents.

For me, the idea of blindly accepting a new definition for any word feels uncomfortable, and sort of orwellian. Can we really just “redefine” words? Is that allowed? Do we have some sort of rule book to tell us what we can and cannot do with our words? I consider myself to be a fairly progressive person, as I believe that there is always something that can be improved. However, the idea of altering language presents me with an intellectual obstacle. The prgressive part of me says that it is perfectly fine to change the definition of a word if it is no longer fitting, especially if it helps promote positive change. However, as I study the great political divide in the United States, I am beginning to think otherwise.

Firstly, changing the definition of a word seems to only create more conflict. People don’t like to be lied to, and few things makes them feel more victimised than their favorite media sources attempting to change a familiar word in order to fit their agenda. Even coming from a progressive person, I don’t blame them.

I also find that new definitions don’t spread very easily. Especially in times with targeted media consumption and biased news, it is easy for people of differing political views to never come across the concept of a redefined word. The new definition of racism for example, the idea that it can only be targeted towards a minority group, is truly so liberal that most conservatives will never hear about it. So, when the time comes that two people of different stances start to have a discussion about a topic such as racism, there is a difference in the language they might use. I can’t see how you could have an intelligent conversation about such a touchy subject when the two parties don’t even use words the same. This brings me to my next point.

When we change the meaning of words, I think that it takes away from the point of discussion. Once again, racism is a perfect example. When I try to discuss the school to prison-pipeline with my more conservative father, most of the time we don’t even discuss the real problem and try to come up with a solution, because I find myself correcting him on his use of politically correct language. As important as it might be for a politician or person in power to be sensitive to the words they choose, it is extremely inhibiting to deem the use of specific words as a priority in a regular conversation.

I do understand the appeal in changing words. To continue the discussion of racism, it is difficult to fix a problem that primarily applies to one group when we have people using the word so carelessly. To clarify, since the problem we are trying to fix is racism against African Americans, it seems counterproductive for a white person, for example, to victimize themselves and claim that they are facing racism as well. It pulls away from the problem at hand, and can be seen as offensive to those that are victims of the larger issue. In this sense, it makes sense to desire a more specific definition to discuss the problem of racism, which is where the concept of redefining the word comes from. However, as discussed, this simply does not work as efficiently as we would hope. Instead, it distracts from the discussion and causes more conflict.

Even though the word racism is just one example of this phenomenon, it can also be seen in the concept of what is defined as a hate crime, implication towards sexual orientation, and more. So, while each of these concepts and words have different situations in terms of their changing definitions, they all represent an issue that I believe is important to address. The issue of fundamental differences in ways of thought between the two parties in the United States, that only contribute to the current divide. So, is the answer to create a rule that stops us from changing language? Or, is this changing language simply an effect of the divide rather than a problem in itself? How can we use this concept to help unify the nation?

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