The Importance of Language

The last few posts I’ve written, I’m not religious. I’m spiritual., So Anne Rice isn’t a Christian anymore? and, over on Pornocracy, Mistress Matisse Is Just Plain Wrong (that last one being potentially not safe for work) all have a similar focus. They’re all about the words we use and what they mean.

We’ve reached a point as a culture at which it’s no longer assumed that anything has inherent meaning. This has been building for a long time, and I think now we’re at a point where our culture recognizes that Truth is, largely, relative. It is defined by circumstance. Meaning depends on so many factors that we no longer conceive of anything having inherent meaning.

Because of that, I put huge amounts of importance on language. Living in a meaningless world affords us untold freedom in creating meaning. It also gives us the great responsibility of being aware of the meaning that we create. One of the most basic ways we assign meaning is in our use of language. The way we use words not only gives meaning to the words, but is part of our way of understanding things and assigning value. How we define words has implications for the meanings of not just those words, but words related to them as well. Sloppy use of language creates a whole string of meaning that may not be in line with the core values of the person using it, but will likely play out in their lives nonetheless. On the other hand, the use of language may reveal values that they profess not to have.

An example here is, I think, Deborah Anapol’s writings on polyamory. She wrote one of the earliest books on polyamory, Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits. In it she mixed language of New Age spirituality, Neotantra and polyamory in a way that presented polyamory as a more enlightened way of structuring relationships. Though she hasn’t been as active in a poly world since, she’s recently returned with a new book and a blog on Psychology Today’s website.

In Anapol’s inaugural post she attempts to describe what polyamory is. She starts off by saying:

My position on polyamory has always been pro-choice rather than anti-monogamy, but after thirty years as a participant-observer in this strange new world it’s more the case than ever that I really have no position on whether people should be monogamous or not.

To Deborah Anapol, monogamy is one choice among several, and it’s really none of her business what you do, and she’s not qualified to tell you what you should do. That’s pretty fantastic. I’d applaud a sentiment like that.

She then goes on to say:

While many people define polyamory as the practice of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with everyone’s full knowledge and consent, I see it differently. To me polyamory is a philosophy of loving that asks us to surrender to love. Polyamory leads us to ask, “What is the most loving and authentic way I can be present with these people and with myself at this time?”

If polyamory is to be a useful word at all, it needs to refer to “the practice of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with everyone’s full knowledge and consent.” That’s the point of calling a particular relationship style polyamory. What Anapol does here is to define polyamory as the way of relating to others that is the most authentic and most loving. So in contrast, then, monogamy is inauthentic and less loving? One cannot determine that the most authentic and loving way to be present with people is to engage in only one romantic partnership? That looks like what she’s saying.

I fully agree with Anapol that the thing to be valued is asking, “What is the most loving and authentic way I can be present with these people and with myself at this time?” Polyamory? Monogamy? To me they are valueless on their own. Engaging in relationships that feed all involved and reflect a commitment to love and the self is more important than valuing one style of relating over another. But by defining polyamory as answering that particular question, Anapol is saying the answer to the question is “not monogamy.”

Her language creates value.

In a post I linked to above I described how Matisse’s language defined monogamy as something other than having a single romantic relationship, and the values that came from that definition. In the Rice and spiritual/religious posts we see more examples of someone (re)defining something as “all the stuff I don’t like.” This use of language creates or reflects values that, in most cases, I don’t think the people using them want to have.

There’s an assumption among many that things like this should be be allowed to slide, that “you know what they really mean, you’re just playing at semantics.” If language creates and reflects meaning, then no, I can’t let things slide. In a world where nothing can be assumed, and in sub- and counter-cultures (anti-racist, sex-positive, feminist) in which making assumptions is seen as damaging (that’s what euro-centrism, hetero-centrism, etc. are all about), it’s doubly important. The assumptions in our language shape our world, and if we want to shape that world deliberately, we have to be aware of the language we use.

Take a look at the insults we use. The last howevermany years have seen an explosion in people using “gay” as a pejorative. When I’ve called people on it they’ve said it’s just a synonym for stupid. I find that hard to imagine. “Gay” as an insult comes from devaluing homosexuality. Calling something gay is saying it’s as bad as being homosexual.

In the same way I’ve tried to move away from using body parts as insults. Calling someone a dick or an asshole is devaluing those body parts. Sorry, but I’m pretty fond of my dick and my asshole.

I’ve certainly called women “stunning” and “striking” before. A recent Sociological Images post on young Christian men’s view of modesty uses several different discussions on how men view women to show how this language ties into our culture’s view of women’s bodies and women’s sexualities.

This language — suggesting that women’s bodies “scream” at him, attempt to control him, and “forcefully” tempt him — is reminiscent of Tim Beneke’s interviews with men about sexual violence in Men on Rape. Michael Kimmel (summarizing Beneke in Guyland) discusses how lots of the terms used to describe a beautiful, sexy woman are metaphors for danger and violence: “ravishing,” “stunning,” bombshell,” “knockout,” “dressed to kill,” and “femme fatale.” “Women’s beauty,” Kimmel surmises, “is perceived as violence to men” (p. 229).

While seeing overwhelming beauty, in a person or a sunset or a work of art, might make me feel like the wind has been knocked out of me, how do these expressions play into violence against women?

What we say matters. How we say it matters. It both reflects and shapes the world around us. If we don’t take care with what we say, we create values and meaning that may have consequences far greater than “well you know what I meant!”

Or, as Uncle Wilson used to say, “Say what you mean and mean what you say, Dorothy.”

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