Illustration by Carmen Li
At its core, language is nothing more than a collection of words and socially shared rules that create communication between people and dictate their resultant meanings. However, the latter part of this definition is where language draws its significance. Implications derived from the connotations of words affect not only the way people are understood in the context of conversation, but also shape the human experience on multiple axes.
The way we view and understand our surroundings is dependent upon the words we choose to describe, explain, or label them. Each word has its own symbolic meaning. Language transforms the objective world into our subjective realities. As the theory of Linguistic Relativism states, differing vocabulary and grammatical structures influence the way people perceive the world, whether it’s within the same language or between separate ones.
Though the early explorations of this idea tended to be overly deterministic, suggesting one’s knowledge was strictly bound to the limits of their mother tongue, the theory’s central ideas are still compelling today. Countless examples of labeling in modern culture display this continued relevance.
For example, language can be a source of empowerment, exemplified by the practice of reclaiming words by a number of oppressed groups. The act of taking back slurs or insults (e.g., “slut,” “bitch,” “fat,” etc.) can build personal and community identity, in addition to being an act of defiance and resistance. It challenges established power structures, by stripping the dominant group of their ability to demean or insult groups of lower social status.
In my own life, like many others, I’ve used different labels to preserve control over my own sexual orientation. When I first came out, I originally took on the label of “bisexual.” To me, it seemed to be a close enough term to my actual orientation. Considering I had little access and awareness of other terms like pansexual or omnisexual, saying I was bisexual seemed like my only option. As I started dating, I began to viscerally understand the stigmas attached to the term, particularly in my interactions with straight men. I was assumed to be promiscuous, indecisive, and “a tease.” As a combative strategy, I soon adopted the broad and deliberately ambiguous label of “queer.” Rather than let others speculate habits, preferences, or worth from just a fraction of my identity, I maintain as much privacy as possible, preferring vagueness to explicitness. Simply changing the words I used to describe myself afford me a level of freedom and comfort I didn’t realize was possible.
This kind of relabeling can also be observed politically, especially in the case of redubbing “developing countries” “postcolonial countries.” The prior sets the advanced industrial societies of Euro-America as the global standard, glossing over their social ills with an air of self-congratulation. The latter recognizes that, historically, colonialism has affected most of the lesser developed countries, limiting their ability to industrialize in the same manner as their colonizers. Long-term solutions to issues regarding education, healthcare, infrastructure, and poverty can be better addressed by the global community when there is an explicit acknowledgement of colonial context. Otherwise, short-term fixes, such as culturally incompetent humanitarian projects, will continue to fail in tackling the deep-rooted causes of social issues, leaving many nations struggling to cope with globalization.The wrong label can then be a hindrance to sustainable development, as well as an incorrect name.
Word choice can also be used to mask or deflect in other dangerous and destructive ways, illustrated by the popularization and rebranding of neo-nazism and white supremacy as the “alt-right” in the last year. The use of the word “alt” is purposeful; it evokes the charming eccentricity of alternative music, fashion, and lifestyles, making it counter-intuitive and vague enough to garner intrigue. This has led to the normalization of their brand of White Nationalism in mainstream society. No one wants a self-proclaimed KKK member on their evening news, but Milo Yiannopoulos and Steve Bannon are totally appropriate, because they’re simply part of a differing ideology, deemed the “alternative right.” Some even call for the inclusion of these White Nationalists in political discourse, making their threatening views more accessible, easily digestible, as well as validated and legitimized.
The same goes for the language used to describe Trump and his administration. His presidency has already begun to resemble an authoritarian dictatorship in its first month – giving it any more legitimacy will only make the situation worse. By labeling it a “regime” rather than an “administration,” his reckless policies and rhetoric are harder to normalize. This small act, mirrored by John Oliver and other humorists, employs words as mechanisms for resistance and calls for social change.
Our words have the ability to re-write narratives, redistribute power, and shift understanding in whatever direction we choose. They are not neutral objects of little significance and should never be disregarded, especially as we enter this new “post-truth era.” It is imperative that we keep their importance at the forefronts of our minds.