The Social Justice War on Language

By James Oliver

Let me begin by stating, unequivocally, that rape, domestic violence, and discrimination are serious social problems that need to be addressed. As a conservative — note that I did not say “Republican” — I recognize that certain groups, on average, have a head start in life. These groups include the wealthy, whites, men, heterosexuals, and Christians. And while the poor, non-whites, women, non-heterosexuals, and members of certain other religions have opportunities they did not have 100, 50, 25, or even ten years ago, they are still at a disadvantage compared to people like me.

Some may read the rest of this article and then decide that statement is like saying “I’m not racist because I have black friends.” Others may be upset that I only identified two genders, rather than painstakingly listing men, women, transmen, transwomen, the agendered, and any other identity I may have forgotten or may not be aware of. Some will read that last sentence and classify it as “hate speech,” regardless of the fact that I hold no feelings of hatred or discomfort toward anyone based on their gender identity. Personally, I’m frustrated that I even have to make such a disclaimer, but that’s the environment we now live in.

Social justice, though on the whole a positive and noble goal, has been undermined by a group which has forced us to tiptoe around every word we use and scrutinize every argument we make. One misstep — whether a poor choice of words, cultural jargon, accidental slip, or, God forbid, a dissenting nuance — and one risks being labeled a rape apologist, or accused of culturally appropriating some concept that doesn’t belong to them by virtue of some characteristic of one’s identity (normally a white cis-gendered male).

I don’t think it’s unfair to take someone’s perspective into account when considering their argument, and to a point it’s natural. But the speaker’s identity cannot be the only factor taken into account when evaluating their argument. Understanding where a person is coming from is useful in helping to converse with them. But an argument needs to be judged on its own merit, regardless of who makes it.

Social justice warriors, however, don’t make arguments based on reason. Regardless of the underlying validity of the goal of progressing toward a society where every child born has an equal opportunity to succeed, that goal is not faithfully pursued by social justice warriors, whose arguments are based mostly on anger and resentment. Much of the emotion is justified, but it is emotion nonetheless. And there’s a big difference between becoming emotionally attached to an argument and basing one’s argument on emotion.

When emotion gets involved, arguments unravel. Tensions flare, and rational discourse vanishes. Participants in such an argument turn to tactics unbecoming a reasoned debate, and this is the position in which social justice warriors find themselves today.

One tactic the illiberal left has been using recently is the appropriation of words. If you’ve been paying close enough attention, you may have noticed a shift in the way some words are used on social networks.

My social media feeds are littered with posts castigating men for their violence — except they’re not talking about rape or domestic abuse. They’re talking about men giving their opinions about fashion trends or flirting with women.

Violence is, for the most part, not acceptable. It is particularly unacceptable in a domestic situation, and there are certainly men — very bad men — who use violence to exert illegitimate control over their partners. While I do think violence has its place, using it for the sole purpose of establishing and preserving control over an innocent person is always wrong.

I think most people would agree with that. As a result, “violence” has a negative connotation, as it should. What social justice warriors have done with the word, as they’ve done with others, is broaden its definition to include other actions which truly do not mean the same thing for the purpose of casting the same negative connotation.

Not too long ago, I spent 24 hours being lambasted on a Facebook post linking an article about men saying they don’t like the way women look wearing high-waisted shorts because I didn’t agree that stating their opinion constituted “violence.” Not long after, I read a craigslist missed connection which concluded with the author, a woman, telling a man who said “hey sexy” to her — and nothing else — as she passed him while he was seated in a well-lit public setting not to “threaten” women anymore.

For most people, the term “violence” evokes images of a person or group of people inflicting physical harm on another. It does not, and should not, include non-physical actions which are several degrees removed from physical harm, if connected at all.

The logic in both of the aforementioned examples is that occasionally a man says something vaguely related to sexuality and then, after a sequence of events, commits an act of violence, and that they are therefore one in the same. Men saying they didn’t like high-waisted shorts must believe they have a right to decide how women dress, and therefore the right to beat or rape them. The woman who didn’t like hearing “hey sexy” had previously been cornered in an alley by totally different men who had presumably made a similar comment, inexorably tying the two disparate events together.

Because feelings of ownership and words that signal sexual attraction occasionally lead to violence five steps down the line, goes the argument, they are essentially the same thing. Understand that this is not speculation — this is what I have actually been told by numerous proponents of this line of thinking, and what the craigslist poster explained in her post.

In terms of rational thinking, this is on par with not allowing Arabs on airplanes. Actually, it’s more like arguing that an Arab has committed an act of terrorism the moment he downloads the Priceline app. In terms of the effect and the execution, however, it’s even worse. Whether or not sexual assault or domestic violence are problems is not the point here. The issue is that men are now characterized as dangerous for attempting to initiate a conversation with a woman or critiquing a fashion trend.

Yes, language changes over time. But typically it’s an organic, aggregate process. Acronyms, euphemisms, regional accents, and the introduction of foreign words can change lexicon. Slight misunderstandings of the meanings of words can be disseminated, and their colloquial definitions shift in small increments over a period of time until a new definition is established by precedent.

It’s also true that language comes with a certain flexibility, which allows a writer or speaker to connect two separate concepts for the purpose of making a point. Like when a reporter describes the scene of a hurricane blowing through a city as “violent”, or when someone describes their broken TV as “dead.”

Describing a storm as “violent” works. The adjective, by its very nature, is already slightly removed from the noun in that it describes the characteristics of the noun. And a hurricane leaving death and destruction in its path certainly exhibits characteristics of violence. Even describing the behavior of a hurricane as violence (the noun) isn’t a betrayal of the definition because it wouldn’t, and doesn’t attempt to, convince anyone that the storm was running around shooting people. I’ve even used “violence” (noun) to describe speech. But that’s hyperbole used to make another point, not an earnest attempt to change the definition of the word. Normally I say something like “rhetorical violence” to make sure I’m being clear.

What I’ve just described are literary devices, not a complete reinvention of the word. Changing the definition of “violence” to include verbal statements is a deliberate misrepresentation of the term and the connotation that comes with it. Condemning someone who expresses disdain for a particular type of clothing as violence casts the person in a light they don’t deserve.

This is not the natural evolution of language. It’s propaganda designed to promote a Draconian agenda. Social justice warriors attempt to capitalize on the emotional reactions people have to these words and direct them toward actions that are completely different and far less problematic.

What’s most distressing and insidious is that the perpetrators of this campaign are not simply trying to adjust the definition of these words; they’re trying to apply their new definitions retroactively. Going back to my recent experience, when I pointed out that expressing an opinion cannot, by definition, possibly be violence, my point was rebutted with “no, you’re wrong; it IS violence.” This implies that the definition of violence always included peaceful speech and I just didn’t know it. This is, of course, not true.

I respect people who see a connection between phenomena not linked by conventional wisdom. Arguing that there’s always been an unseen connection between domestic violence and sexual attraction or testosterone or traditional gender roles is one thing. And there are valid points to be made there. But arguing that the simple act of giving an opinion, however crudely worded, on the sex appeal of women wearing a certain article of clothing — with no reason to believe that the men giving the opinion are predisposed toward violence — falls under the same definition of a word used to describe beating one’s girlfriend, is dangerous and should not be tolerated.

Yes, if a man had made a critical comment about a particular woman’s shorts while she was standing in front of him, she may have reacted with annoyance or offense, and it’s possible that he would have responded with physical force. But in this circumstance, men were approached by a blogger friend who asked their opinion of these shorts, recorded their responses, and posted them in a blog. No one suffered any bodily harm, direct or indirect, as a result. The “victims” weren’t even specific people — they were abstractions in the men’s minds. They were discussing a concept, not a specific woman and her shorts. And since no one was harmed, no violence occurred.

It’s worth noting that even though each of the men in this blog post were giving their opinions in response to a direct and specific inquiry, the half-dozen or so people against whom I was arguing repeatedly called their opinions “unsolicited,” despite my many attempts to point out why that was demonstrably false.

Violence involves bodily injury. If you catch yourself thinking “I can see how saying you don’t think women look attractive in those shorts can be considered violence,” stop, and take a step back. You can see how it might be considered disrespectful or shallow. You may be offended because you wear high-waisted shorts or like the way they look. But your emotional reaction does not mean that the act of holding or expressing a differing opinion is violence.

As long as this phenomenon is limited to social media, it presents no real First Amendment issue, other than implying that respect for free speech may be eroding. More troublesome is the Orwellian nature of molding language to fit a sociopolitical agenda.

Another front in the War on Language manifested itself last year at Arizona State University, where a student started a petition with the goal of having the verbiage on pedestrian-friendly road signs around campus changed from “Walk Only” to something which doesn’t exclude disabled people (“Pedestrian” shouldn’t work, since “pedes” is Latin for “on foot”). Ironically, this is the opposite of the redefinition of “violence,” in that it ignores expanded meaning in favor of using ten words when one would suffice. But it is the same tactic being used for the same purpose — meddling with the use of words in order to promote an agenda.

“Walk,” in this case, is a catch-all for anyone travelling by not car or bike. And since those signs are intended for motorists and bikers, not pedestrians (why remind pedestrians that they’re the only ones allowed to use the sidewalk?), one must consider that the safest and most practical message to ask them to read while driving is the one with the fewest words. And “walk-only” does a great job of that, since most motorists get the intended point, which is that they should not be GTAing their way down a sidewalk. And their respect for disabled people is not affected in any way, ever, consciously or otherwise.

There’s a certain irony in criticizing sensitive Millennials for picking words apart to arrive at a distinct and singular meaning in the same article where I do the same thing to argue against broadening the definition of other words. But the underlying problem is the alteration of language for a social cause. And it’s nothing new. As Wanda Sykes once pointed out, no black people are walking around saying “man, African-American … this beats the hell out of being black!”

Racism, sexual assault, and unfair disadvantages for disabled people are real problems that deserve real attention. And yes, solving those problems does involve, in part, winning hearts and minds. And there is something to be said for words and their definitions’ contributions to the way people think.

But ostracizing people for using words with no existing offensive connotation or for expressing opinions by applying new definitions of words to their perspectives is ineffective, misguided, and it takes us down a dangerous path. And just as calling black people “African-American” did absolutely nothing to solve the problem of unbalanced poverty or incarceration rates, changing pedestrian-only signs to something more “inclusive” does nothing to vanquish the stigma of being disabled. Calling men violent because they don’t like high-waisted shorts is not going to stop domestic violence. It’s time to redirect the focus toward something more meaningful.