How Language Divides Us

Right now, in 2021, the United States is seeing more political division than it has since the civil war. As scholars debate the validity behind this claim– is this political division simply being mistaken by the social polarity accentuated by social media, what exactly does social division mean, and to what extend can it quality as polarization – I seek to understand how our small tendencies as people contribute to this culture. Specifically, I believe our fixation on words, such as our prioritization of being "politically correct," serves as a positive feedback loop to our issue of polarization.

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 discrimination 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 more recent definition limits racism to a one-way form of discrimination, from a group in power towards a minority group. While I do not aim to criticize this concept, nor do I claim to be an expert in critical race theory, I am interested in what this change in definition represents for our society.

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 in my ideology that there is always something that can be improved; however, the idea of altering language presents me with an intellectual obstacle. The progressive 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 victimized 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 (in terms of American liberalism) that most conservative-identifying people 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. When we change the meaning of words, it deters from the central idea of discussion. Using a hypothetical example, two people have read an article discussing the concept of the "school-to-prison pipeline." The discussion can carry tension at some points, but is easily distracted when one party corrects the other on their use of politically correct language. While whatever term this other person used "incorrectly," may have been insensitive, putting too much focus on the word is problematic. In fixating on the individual words, we are willfully ignoring the intention of the user, the connotations of their sentences, and the general nuance of their speech. To address a more common complaint, 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. In the context of the United States, where the most prevalent civil rights problem is racism against African Americans, it might seem counterproductive for a white person to victimize themselves and claim that they are facing racism as well. It takes 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?

Writer: Annie de Castro

March, 2021

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I am from the United States, both physically, and mentally. Though I haven’t lived there in almost 6 years, it plays a major role in my identity, whether I like it or not. Engulfed by my extremely lib