Calling Names: The Words that Shape Our World

It was a few years ago and I was speechless (which doesn’t happen often). The man had just called himself a fundamentalist. I would obviously have laughed at the joke, but for the sincerity beaming from his face. He was a fundamentalist, yes, I would have readily agreed. The strange thing was that he seemed proud of the fact.

Up to that point, fundamentalist was a derogatory word used to describe believers who refused to think about their faith. In my mind it stood for stupidity, intolerance, close-mindedness offensiveness. But this man obviously didn’t use it in the same way. We were at a fundamental impasse.

The words we use ring true in our minds. Each one has its own special timbre and connotations that we experience as self-evidently part of its meaning. Except that everyone’s words might not sound the same when struck. recently had a series of guest posts called Learning The Words. These posts each focused on a specific word and its meaning within many super-fundamentalist contexts. They detail how the worldview of the people on the inside of these groups is shaped by the meanings that are given to specific words. Words like liberal, worldly, sensual, and pure were given spins that suited the people in control. The words had such strong connotations of right or wrong and what they entailed, that the people in the churches never even thought of questioning the validity of their definitions. Phrases like “that’s what liberals say” got the power to end discussions, because nobody wants to be like THEM.

I recently heard a similar phrase, using capitalist almost as a swearword. In its context it denoted greed, selfishness and lack of empathy. This is not new to me, but for the first time ever it had been directed at me. In my immediate reaction, I realised that I started thinking about certain words in the same way, which brought me to a jarring conclusion:
Whenever we make a noun or an adjective a pejorative term, we’re guilty of abuse. We have turned something that should classify a whole range of standpoints into a collection of the worst opinions we can fit into its definition. This, in turn, destroys the possibility of meaningful discourse. Reducing a well-intentioned argument to the views of a dirty capitalist/fundamentalist/eco terrorist makes us feel more secure in our opinions, without actually engaging with what is being said. Our characterisations become almost comically distorted which makes it easier to win, since the opinions of caricatures are always a bit ridiculous.

We are not pushed towards introspection and sophistication in our opinions and arguments. You see, the more we caricature others, the more we become caricatures ourselves.