The End of Meaning
This is something I’ve thought about for many months and couldn’t quite bring myself to write.
I found myself reticent to put it to text not only because it isn’t quite fully formed — which, after reading this piece, should be immediately obvious — but also because it is a view that has a slippery-slope problem and a challenge of defining clear lines of demarcation. Nevertheless, I feel it is important as a heuristic, as a result of the ongoing devaluation on the meaning of language.
Everywhere you look, the verbiage of movements, political or cultural, take on hyperbolic text where some minor grievance becomes equivalent to the Holocaust or FDR’s internment camps.
The Left would argue, through a series of red-string links, that this is the result of capitalism and, to a great extent, they would be right. The incentive structure of the media and, more broadly, our social environment is such that whoever creates the most outlandish, entertaining narrative of an event is going to win the day through money vis-a-vis “clicks” and ad revenue.
Still, the “capitalism equals all social ills” is a superficial, lazy analysis of this phenomenon that fails to understand the driving features of American society. There is no immediately identifiable financial profit mechanism for people to argue that someone disagreeing with them in a classroom is “literal violence” or that men saying sexist things is effectively rape.
There is something deeper at work here and it speaks to the polarized nature of society. As an adjunct professor, I’ve noticed that in my classrooms the students find a theoretical niche of likeminded individuals and then organically and collectively settle on a hegemonic analytical decision for everything from terror motivation to the outcomes of enforcing gender binaries in Iran. Individually, they may have leaned in very different directions for equally valid reasons but, until individually identifying those analytical differences as mutually exclusive, those options remained completely harmonious with the group’s social cohesion. As the group contemplates their different opinions, it is often the voice with the most intra-organizational social stature that ends up carrying the day for the entire group’s analytical interpretation, regardless of prior inclination.
This process is hegemonic inasmuch as deviation on one intellectual consensus, such as whether state intervention in the economy is more successful in ethnically and linguistically homogenous states, can affect one’s social standing in ancillary fields, such as quantitative microeconomic modeling with varying error term considerations. There are seemingly numerous incentives to conform to your social group’s understanding of the world in every aspect, even ones that are not central to the social group’s cohesion.
The issue with this trend is that it tends to empower the most blunt instruments with the tacit social backing of a larger intellectual cohort. There is no stop-gap for hyperbole or histrionics, which, in and of itself, is not a huge issue, but its political ramifications and consequences are numerous and deleterious.
As phrases like “abusive”, “violence,” “gaslighting,” and “brave” used by political activists and commentators become disambiguated from their origins, the value of the terms lose emphasis and devalue the original meaning. If disagreeing with someone verbally is “violence” or a class-conscious primary voter is a “bro,” then the sheer asymmetry between the conventional understanding of the word will be enough to broadly alienate that brand of politics to 99% of Americans. Furthermore, if a calm classroom verbal disagreement is “violence,” then what term could possibly encapsulate the horror of a drone strike in a civilian compound in the Middle East?
During these moments I think a lot about Amy Shuman’s Entitlement and Empathy in Personal Narrative that effectively addresses who is entitled to a story. For Shuman, it was the person that had the most direct experience with the story at hand that would get to decide ownership while negotiating the narrative of how one is to approach the story. Shuman adroitly noticed that car crash victims’ with no memory of the incident are often entitled to greater social control over the telling of and interpretation of the car crash than, say, the doctors involved while other parties sought to interpret (through “empathy”) the experience within a broader narrative suite.
I honestly wonder whether those students at the University of Michigan accusing the police department of “literal violence” for endorsing Donald Trump would, when isolated from their social cohort, feel comfortable articulating to a recent violent mugging victim how their experiences are comparable. Perhaps they would, but I also believe the mugging victim would be more likely disagree than not and, on average, the activist would cede ground, if offered a suitably face-saving exit.
Again, this is a very poorly formed thought, but it has been rattling around long enough to at least help me identify where the interpretation fails.
Originally published at www.bowtiedespots.com.