We Don’t Have the Language to Talk About What’s Happening

I mean, the words exist. But they’ve become so diluted and overused that they’re useless.

Because of my cultural background, I grew up with a very different understanding of a lot of political terms than a lot of the white, non-Jewish American folks I interact with. I’m a Russian Jew. My parents fled the crumbling Soviet Union a year before I was born. So, to be fair, I never lived through the horrors they saw, but from their vivid stories I almost feel like I have. That, and, unlike our new president, I’ve actually read a few books.

So when I picture, for instance, the word “propaganda,” I tend to imagine a Party leader at a mandatory assembly, insisting that our factories and farms have been more productive this year than ever before, while audience members sit with their stomachs growling.

White Americans apparently imagine a New York Times article about why trans people should have access to the bathrooms of their choice.

When I hear “censorship,” I remember my parents’ stories about passing around samizdat, or self-published books, essays, and poetry that would never get past the state censors. Producing or circulating these well-worn, often barely-legible materials could lead to prison time, exile from the country, institutionalization, or a labor camp sentence. A lot of the brilliant Soviet-era Russian literature that most of you are failing to read was created in this way.

I also think about Stalin having a high-ranking Party official shot in a basement, cremated, and erased from all official documentation. Eight years later, nobody had any idea where he was, or that he was dead. He was far, far from the only one.

When I hear about “censorship” from white Americans, they are as likely to be referring to a university canceling a controversial speaker after student protests, or a website closing down its comments section, as to an act of civil disobedience leading to imprisonment in a labor camp. Actually, scratch that — they are much more likely to be referring to cancelled speakers and comments sections.

When I think about “political correctness” — which, admittedly, is a term that originated in the United States and I suppose y’all can do whatever you want with it — I nevertheless remember the fact that 3,000 Soviet biologists were fired from their jobs, imprisoned, or even killed for refusing to accept Trofim Lysenko’s theories on genetics, which state, among other things, that weeds can spontaneously transform into edible plants and that you can quadruple crop yields simply by growing crops in low temperatures and high humidity. The scientists who disagreed with this obviously antiscientific bullshit were, you might say, politically incorrect. They were “just saying what nobody else had the guts to say.” Many of them died for it.

Here in White America, political correctness simply means that if you say things that offend people, they will probably get angry at you and possibly yell at you. They may also choose not to hire you, accept you into their educational institution, or otherwise do business with you.

So when I want to point out that Americans are being threatened by the President for expressing politically incorrect views (i.e. facts), that the White House is disseminating propaganda, or that preventing scientists from discussing their research is censorship, it all feels a little…weak. And why shouldn’t it? “Propaganda” now means “someone published something I disagree with,” so I feel like I’m missing some essential vocabulary.

And yeah, definitions change. I’m not one to glorify dictionaries as the ultimate arbiters of language and its meaning (although I have to give a shout-out to Merriam-Webster for continually trying to protect democracy), but we have to somehow confront the fact that we’ve taken some of our most potent political language and made it totally fucking useless.

This is one of many reasons why it’s so difficult for all of us — progressives included — to speak accurately about what’s happening in our federal government right now. And without an accurate diagnosis, there can be no effective treatment.

But hey, at least you got to insult liberals by comparing them to Soviets.

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