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I’m often referred to as a Grammar Nazi, and many of my friends take delight in finding errors I’ve made in something I’ve posted. I am embarrassed, and I fix the error promptly. But, most people are thinking, “What difference does it make anyway?” The difference it makes is greater than you probably ever imagined. We’re seeing the effects of poor language use on our country daily. It divides us for reasons we don’t understand.

If I use the word “table,” we probably have a similar image in mind. If I use it in context, you’ll probably be more certain of what I mean. If I describe it well enough, we will both have a nearly identical understanding of the word.

When, however, we misuse words, their meanings become murky. “Chill” is a somewhat benign example. It once meant to make cold. People saw that as a good metaphor for relaxing. “Chill, dude!” is not a call to put a beer in the refrigerator. It’s a plea for someone to settle down.

I got in trouble a few years ago for using the word in that context. I have a friend who is a brilliant singer, and a very beautiful woman. She is decades too young for me, but that doesn’t keep us from being friends. I saw on Facebook one day that she was having a difficult day. I behaved as I thought a friend should. I knew she would enjoy the opportunity to relax after all of her difficulties, so I texted her. I invited her to watch a movie with my new access to Netflix, and to relax, perhaps sharing a bit of marijuana. My meaning was entirely benign. The way I phrased it got me into instant trouble. “It looks like you’re having a lousy day. When you get off work, why don’t you come by? We can watch Netflix and chill a while.”

She was shocked I would send her such an offensive text. Evidently “Netflix and chill” has an entirely different meaning. She wondered if, because she wasn’t even 30 yet, and I was in my 50s, I was some sort of pervert. Without intending to, I had evidently invited her to a sexual encounter. I apologized when I recognized my mistake, and we are still friends. It wasn’t a big deal, but it could have cost me a person I enjoy having in my life.

Now, that’s a minor issue. “Chill” is not a terribly important word.

But, what about words that carry greater weight? What, for example, is Socialism? What is Communism? What does Conservative mean? What about Liberal? What is Capitalism? We all throw these words around as easily as “table” or “chill,” but their meanings seem to vary as widely as the people who use them. I will limit this essay to only one of these words, but as much could be written about any of them.

Just today, I came across this definition of Liberal:

The Liberal: We support terrorist groups. We support antisemitism. We support thought and speech control. We support attacking people in the street for having different opinions. We support sacking people for having different opinions. We support hounding and harassing people for having different opinions. We think all white people are born evil. We teach that all white people are born evil. We support open borders. We support widespread drug use. We support the sexualisation of children. We tacitly support the mass rape of children. We support special privileges for certain groups based on gender, race or sexual orientation. We support hating your own country or your own working class. We support the cruelty of halal. We support welfare cheating. We support pulling down statues. We support you being ruled from abroad. We support everything and everyone that hates you, damages your society or blights your life. And we support you paying high taxes for it too.
The Conservative: Please stop.
The Liberal: Shut up you moron. Why did conservatives become so extreme?”

Bartholomew Chiaroscuro

If that’s the definition of Liberal you believe to be correct, it’s hardly a surprise you despise me. If that were what Liberals believe, in just that form, I would not choose to be one. However… that’s not what the word actually means.

The Dictionary at Google defines the word as follows:

“open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values.
(of education) concerned mainly with broadening a person’s general knowledge and experience, rather than with technical or professional training.”

Google Dictionary

John Dewey tells us:

But the majority who call themselves liberals today are committed to the principle that organized society must use its powers to establish the conditions under which the mass of individuals can possess actual, as distinct from, merely legal liberty. They define their liberalism in the concrete in terms of a program of measures moving toward this end.”

Liberalism and Social Action

These are only a few of the definitions of the word. In order for us to communicate with one another effectively, we must agree on what words mean. Without that agreement, we are spitting into the wind. We can accomplish nothing because we can’t understand each other.

How do we manage this?

I think it begins by examining the context in which a word is used. While what we currently call a Conservative might agree with the first, frankly offensive, definition of the word, I know few Liberals who would. And I know many people who call themselves Conservative, in a different sense of the word than is popularly used today, who would also find that definition to be absurd.

Let’s ask ourselves why some are choosing one definition of a word but not another. What advantage is gained for them in argument? If all Liberals, or all Conservatives, or all of any other group you might wish to label in a negative way, are evil, then I don’t need to engage their arguments. I can simply call them, “Typical ___” You may fill in the blank.

I have made no argument. I’ve done nothing to convince anyone that I’m right and they’re wrong. I’ve learned nothing about the opposing point of view that might help me to refine my own. I just get the unwarranted feeling that I’m superior.

If I’m choosing a definition of Liberal that I like best, it would probably be Kennedy’s:

If by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal”, then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”

Profiles in Courage

The function of language is to help us to understand one another more clearly. When we use words as epithets instead of as accurate descriptions of one ideology or another, we are unable to communicate meaningfully. I can’t solve the world’s problems alone. Neither can you. If, however, we listen to each other, understand each other, and learn from each other, together we might take a few steps in that direction.

The time is out of joint—O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let’s go together.”

Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5