Retorts: It’s the new war on words

CULTURES have been borrowing from each other as long as there have been people (Shutterstock).

Have you appropriated lately?  Are you a socialist or just social?  Did you know that JFK and MLK were conservatives?

I’m a word guy, as you might guess. Using the right word is the heart of good writing, and using the “right” word to make your point is near to the heart of politics, for good or not-so-good.

Verbiage has always been a moving target. A word that was acceptable a generation ago is taboo today, and a word that’s understood in one meaning today may take on a wholly different connotation in the near future.

That happens more or less naturally in our culture. Men used to call strangers “Mac.”  Now we use “dude” or “bro” or “fella” or other words less printable.

What I’m most interested is the practice of using – or misusing – a word as a weapon of virtual war. You can re-contextualise [what a pompous term in of itself] a word to make its adherents into heroes or villains without much regard to the dictionary definition or commonly-held meanings of the terms.

This has been done on the right and the left.

I first really became aware of this in 2010 when conservative political commentator Glenn Beck started attacking “progressivism,” calling it a “disease” and comparing it to communism.

Progressives, he wrote, were part of a secret conspiracy to take over the country, comparing it to the Nazi holocaust. He attracted a certain number of adherents, but as his conspiracy theories become more and more “out there,” including the idea that American drinking water included sterilizing agents and that President Barack Obama was planning to fake a terrorist attack to boost his popularity, he lost altitude.

Yes, his influence faded, but for a while, few Democrats dared to call themselves progressive. I guess it’s “iffy” to want progress.

Fast forward a bit to more recent times. The term “cultural appropriation,” or – if you really had a fun time in college,  “cultural colonialism” – refers to the adopting of certain elements of one culture by another. In that context, it’s a relatively neutral description. There’s no such thing as a pure culture; as long as people interact, move and learn, they borrow from other folks.

But for some people, cultural appropriation amounts to theft. You’re taking my culture – music, food, fashions, etc. – and using it in a profane or dominating way.

Hmmm. To me, that is a fairly defeatist sort of way to define it. How about: “Hey! My culture is so great that people of all nations and backgrounds love it and proudly adopt parts of it!”

Considering the sharing of a culture as some sort of defeat smacks of a victim psychology that feeds a sense of offended self-righteousness without actually moving us toward true social justice.

We’ve seen lefties seek to demonize centrist Democrats as sell-outs and righties condemn moderate Republicans as “RINOs,” which stands for Republicans In Name Only.

Socialism has been verbally re-tuned on the left to simply mean lots of cool social programs. It doesn’t. It means state ownership of the means of production, such as mining, manufacturing, transportation systems, etc.  Look it up.

On the right, some have tried to re-invent John Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King as neo-Republicans because they argued for a color-blind society.

I don’t suppose there’s any end to this. It will probably be around forever, in some form, like toothaches and white socks with black shoes.

But don’t let anybody else define you. That’s simply a form of personal individuality appropriation. See? I can make up vague, use-it-any-way-you-like terms, too.

Jim Tortolano’s Retorts is posted on Wednesdays, the middle of the week. See, he’s one of those damned centrists, too!









1 reply »

  1. What you define as “socialism” is state socialism. There have been other versions of socialism throughout history, including the kind of soft socialism/social democracy one can see in Scandinavian states. These countries enjoy a quality of life better than the United States. Well, beer prices are crazy and the weather isn’t always so good, but that is the kind of “socialism” that many here aspire to.

    Look it up.

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