Actions may speak louder than words, and there are a lot of loud actions these days, but words are always part and parcel of the action.
Words are fundamental to human life and, of course, often quite useful. But some words are making so much trouble for us that the dangerous divisiveness and erosion of democracy of the current moment are not imaginable without them. You wonder whether we wouldn’t be better off without those words.
“Individual” and “personal” are two of the culprits. The confusion created by these words, which hold such a glowing place in the American exceptionalist lexicon, is largely responsible for the state of the debate over abortion, guns, vaccines and the role of government.
The words are useful of course for distinguishing one person from a crowd or declaring, as a basis of democracy, that each of us has inalienable rights. But they are usually used in politics as if there is such a thing as a discrete, stand-alone, unentailed individual and a clearly boundaried realm called the personal. Both are illusions but allow the user to claim that they have absolute say over what they do with their body: whether to get vaxxed or wear a mask, whether to terminate a pregnancy.
The fact is, “individual” and “personal” more or less disappear in the pretty obvious reality that we spend not a moment of life from the very start apart from context: society, family and inherited circumstances. We are created by, as we do our part to create, the world around us.
There is no individual innocent of, no personal life separate from government, either part of the problem or part of the solution, in Cleaver’s memorable dictum. We are in our essence social, part of the whole, hemmed in on all sides by fellow humans with a legitimate interest in what we do with our body.
If we didn’t have those words and concepts, we would be incapable of engaging so naively, ineffectively — and pugnaciously — with others about those issues. All debates about these divisive issues would be improved.
“Race” has in fact been all but kicked out of the dictionary. It still appears there, but with an asterisk, as a discredited term.
This is from dictionary.com’s “alert about usage”: “Genetic evidence has undermined the idea of racial divisions of the human species and rendered race obsolete as a biological system of classification. Race, therefore, should no longer be considered as an objective category.” Wikipedia: “race does not have an inherent physical or biological meaning.”
Within our lifetimes (at least those of us of a certain age) this word “race” which we grew up with as a useful way of distinguishing among certain varieties of homo sapiens, as you might refer to a tree or a spoon, has been determined to be a reference without a referent. Of course, many people continue to use it as if it did, often for damaging purposes.
Presumably, police profiling or replacement anxiety ("whites” feeling threatened by nonwhites who are expected to become the majority in the U.S. by 2050) would be impossible if we no longer saw through “race”-colored glasses.
The word “objectivity” seems unobjectionable, especially as a goal of journalism. But in the age of “fake news,” it is big trouble in suggesting the actual possibility of god-like, totally unbiassed, no-dog-in-this-fight reportage.
Since that clearly doesn’t exist, the Right can claim that any old thing — QAnon nuttiness, Trump’s claims, against all actual evidence, of a stolen election, professional social media liars — has as much validity as the efforts of serious, curious journalists who make it their life’s work to get at and explain the facts.
“Nation” is, since Putin’s war on Ukraine, being revealed as the inadequate term it has become. Putin seems, in a way that seems distinctly of the current moment, a bull in the world’s china closet, ignoring the reality that nationality as a discrete, autonomous entity is undermined by all the economic and electronic ties even Russia has with all other countries.
“Nation's" usefulness is undermined by there being too many people for whom nationality, whether at our border with Mexico or Europe’s with Africa, is contradicted and trumped by humanity.
No doubt there are other words we would arguably be better off without. Such basics as “woman” and “man” are proving not up to the task of addressing gender. “Freedom” is another beloved concept, but as a slogan on anti-vaxxer signs in Ottawa, it is more a weapon than a meaningful term.
Brent Harold, a Cape Cod Times columnist and former English professor, lives in Wellfleet. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Cape Cod Brent Harold: Some words we’d be better off without