Politics and What Remains of the English Language
Here is a list of a few trendy words, overused, politicized, and empty of meaning, that now plague popular communications.
“Intersection” How many times have we read a writer, columnist, pundit, or job applicant self-describe himself with this strange word? Here's an example: “Joe Blow is a social theorist working at the intersection of class oppression, racial stereotyping, and transgendered emergence.”? Or: “Amanda Lopez writes at the intersection of Latina identity, Foucauldian otherness, and social media.” Most of the time “intersection” exists only in the grandiose mind of the writer. It is a patent though feeble attempt to become a threefer or fourfer on the race/gender/generic victim/revolutionary activist scale. The intersected topics are individually irrelevant -- and all the more so when cobbled together. The use of "intersection" is a postmodern way of plastering bumper-sticker narcissisms without writing, “I am an identity-studies person without much knowledge of literature, history, or languages, but am desperately trying to convey expertise of some sort by piling up a bunch of pseudo-disciplines that credential my victimhood activism.”
“Diversity” The noun was rebranded in the 1980s, and does not mean what it by nature should -- “a range” or “multiplicity.” No one furthers the goals of “diversity” by ensuring plenty of conservatives, liberals, radicals and reactionaries on campus, or welcoming lots of Christian fundamentalists as well as atheists and Muslims. The word instead is a euphemism for non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-Christian, and non-liberal. It is a relative and entirely political noun. The University of Missouri football team can both be 52% African-American and proof of diversity, even if African-Americans make up less than 12% of the population -- in a way that all white and elderly Democratic primary candidates are honorifically diverse by virtue of their homogeneous left-wing politics.
Three other observations: First, racial and ethnic diversity, without assimilation and integration into one culture, and when identity becomes essential rather than incidental to a nation (i.e. a salad bowl society rather than the melting pot), leads to Armageddon, whether in Austria-Hungary, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, or Iraq.
Second, the word gained careerist currency because of the bankruptcy of the idea of affirmative action, after it became impossible to explain and thus defend racial set-asides. Who can define the proper DNA that makes one deserving of admissions and employment reparations: 1/4 African-American, but not Punjabi or Egyptian? Hmong, but not Japanese? Oaxacan, but not Castilian? Muslim, but not Mormon? An indigent Appalachian, but not Eric Holder’s son? As a result, universities had to lump everybody deemed non-white together as they pleased and called the catch-all result “diversity” -- regardless of class, income, status or history. If one wishes someone non-white to be hired on the physics faculty, then a South Korean immigrant green-card-holding PhD counts as diversity, in a way that his son would not qualify for traditional affirmative-action status as an 18-year-old applicant to UC Berkeley. Diversity lowered the affirmative-action bar and the natural consequence of vagueness were the fantasies of Elizabeth Warren, Rachel Dolezal, Shaun King, and Ward Churchill -- all professed to be diverse, but all without proper certifications of affirmative-action status.
Third, no one outside the campus much believes in the inherent advantage of diversity/diverse, as least as opposed to united: The Diverse States of America? Diverse Airlines? The Diversity Way? Diverse Technologies? The Diverse Auto Workers?
“Privilege” It certainly no longer means honor or pride (e.g., “It has been my privilege to know you”), but has degenerated into a word of disparagement, used mostly with “white,” as in “white privilege.” And so privilege so often means nothing other than a way for mostly upper-middle-class white kids on campus to feel that they will have fewer problems if they “check” their privilege by reeducation-camp-style confessionals. There are perhaps 230 million “white” somebodies in the United States. The idea that a guy selling cars in Toledo has some intrinsic edge over Valerie Jarrett, Jorge Ramos, or Beyoncé because he is slightly pinker is ridiculous. Don’t take my word for it: when President Obama blasted the “clingers,” his subtext was that poor white uneducated and supposedly superstitious people did not and should not enjoy the privilege that he as an Ivy-League, arugula eating, and golf-putting elite enjoyed. Usually “privilege” is a preemptory word: if you are wealthy or at least middle class and you do not wish to be assessed on your work and achievement, then you accuse others (usually rivals or superiors) of enjoying insidious “privilege” which otherwise explains your own happiness over your perceived lack of parity. Privilege is always asserted, never defined or analyzed.
“Swag” I mention this curious slang only because it has left street parlance. (Is it short for “swagger,” or some sort of acronym denoting sexual preference?)
Swag certainly has left its Nordic root of “sagging/rocking” and entered the language of the First Family. One has swag apparently in the sense that although thoroughly conventional in dress, language, income, status and career, one still has found a demonstrable way to denote that he is authentic, as in cool, hip, in with it.
Swag is supposedly attained by ever so slight adjustments in vocabulary, fashion, or comportment that do not threaten an otherwise studied conventionality. Swag is a reflection that one worries that he has lost the authenticity and legitimacy that helped him win conventionality, and from time to time feels it is career wise to swag his roots, both to fulfill psychological needs and to practice a studied otherness in case its easy demonstration might come in handy in the future. An otherwise slothful lion in the zoo has swag when he growls at an obtrusive onlooker. I suppose when I was farming and occasionally had to drive my decrepit Dodge 1974 pickup, with shovels, broken concrete pipes, valve castings, and bags of quickset in the back, into the faculty parking lot, I could be said to have had ag swag? Barack Obama is said to swag when he uses contrived street parlance when hanging with his basketball heroes.
In other words, swag is essentially a neurotic tic.
“Hurtful” is a strange word that certainly does not fit any standard, identifiable definition of experiencing genuine mental anguish or physical pain, as in it would be hurtful when stung by 6 wasps, or it would be hurtful should someone call you a SOB and then dare you to do something about it. Instead, it has become an entirely subjective term, useful for the enhancement of victimhood leading to envisioned concessions. Again, hurtful is a generic, catch-all adjective. A teacher whose speech is declared “hurtful” is usually not able to be charged with being “racist,” “sexist” or even “obnoxious.” Instead, hurtful is a word of first resort when there is no clear evidence that one has suffered racist or sexist attack, but is unhappy nonetheless for vague reasons. Presto, one finds another’s speech or behavior hurtful, a charge that allows all sorts of fantasies and speculation. Did his teacher’s unspecified “hurtful” behavior or language involve donning a Klan hood or employing “homosexual” instead of “gay”?
Hurtful is a useful political adjective because de facto it implies damage done, in the passive rather than active sense. An “obnoxious” person radiates his toxicity, and a “hater” projects his hatred. But hurtful (“full of hurt”) is entirely, not partly, in the eye of the victim, who alone decides what particular speech or act hit the target and drew blood.
“You are a nice girl” does not qualify as obnoxious or hateful speech, at least as so recognized outside the minute confines of the media-studies department. But it is probably “hurtful” speech, since some one can argue that “nice” and “girl” are proof of condescension and designed to hurt one by deliberately stereotyping her in some sort of subordinating fashion. In a nation of victims, almost anyone can find anything “hurtful” given that it requires no definition. The adjective is also passive-aggressive: a college student can confront a professor, unleash a string of obscene invectives, and then claim his attack was found to be “hurtful” because he had to make it. Storming the library, pushing around students, and insulting them could be “hurtful.”After all, why does an aggrieved group have to be forced to such heroic but nonetheless distressing dramatics?
What Has Happened to Language?
This tiny vocabulary sampling reflects another recent epidemic of victimhood, as the English language is further squeezed and massaged to create reality from fantasy.
First, over a half-century of institutionalized equal opportunity has not led to an equality of result. Particular self-identified groups feel collectively that they are less well off than others and are bewildered that this is still possible, since they can point to no law or custom that precludes their opportunity by race, class, or gender. Therefore, inventing a vocabulary of grievances is far more effective in gaining concessions than self-criticism and self-reliance are in winning parity.
Second, in an affluent, leisured and postmodern society of $300 Jordan-label sneakers that sell out in hours, big-screen televisions at Walmart that become prizes for warring consumers on Black Friday, and over 50% of the population exempt from income taxes, it is becoming harder to define, in the material sense, oppression-driven victimhood. In such a world, even multi-billionaire Oprah has difficulty finding discrimination and so becomes reduced to whining about a perceived snub in a Swiss boutique that sells six-figure purses. Language is pressed into service to create victims where there are few, but where many are sorely needed, psychologically -- and on the chance such a prized status might lead to a profitable trajectory otherwise impossible by passé notions of work and achievement.