I had Facebook discussion with a cousin that was a tangent from the actual original post but was very enlightening nonetheless.
Now, one of the things that is clear is that my cousin is a conservative. And while I prefer to stick to a centrist point of view (with, yes, I admit, liberal leanings — particularly in the case of social justice), I do try to understand what makes people tick. I particularly want to understand when those people are closer to the ends of the spectrum (on both ends) than myself.
In this case, we were having a discussion about the differences perceived when two or more people are discussing words like “racism,” “sexism” or other assorted -isms. The complaint was that people were re-defining those words to “suit themselves.”
This led not only to a discussion of the denotation versus connotation of a word, but how the connotation of a word can change depending upon the context of the person or persons involved as well as the conversation in which it is being used.
When people use the word “context,” it is most often used as relating to words or the surrounding paragraphs of a word or phrase. What people forget is that “context” has more use than just in relation to words.
Look at a thesaurus and you will find some of the synonyms of “context” include: situation, environment, “frame of reference,” condition and setting.
The issue when discussing words like “racism” or “sexism” is that discussing them with those who are “outside” the group similar to yourself has different connotations because that similarity means you have a single context of your understanding that is different from that other person.
In other words, when a person of color or an indigenous person uses the word “racism” there is a different context for them than there is for someone who is white such as myself. That doesn’t mean we (as the “outsider”) can’t learn to understand the context, it simply means that unless you are trying to look at it with a context other than your own, you are likely to be frustrated, angry and often defensive in those discussions.
Same goes for “sexism,” because no matter what (and this is actually being experienced by transgendered people, because they see how differently they are treated when they come out as their chosen gender) unless you are the same gender as the person or persons in the discussion there will always be a clash of contexts.
As I said above, it’s not that it is impossible to understand the context of the other person(s). It is simply more difficult because it requires you to change your perspective.
One of the responses in the discussion was a complaint about “changing the meaning of a word.” The meanings of words change all of the time, it is part of how you know that it is what is called a “living” language rather than a “dead” one. Languages evolve, sometimes extremely rapidly. It’s one of the reasons that translations from dead languages can be very difficult to tie down. It’s not that the dead language has changed, it is that the live language has and a translator has to find the right word in the living language to keep the intent of the original author.
The response to that discussion of evolving language was: “So just leave the meaning alone. They’ve been just fine in the past so stop thinking everything has to change.”
This reply, unfortunately, means that the person doesn’t quite understand the concept I was trying to communicate. That doesn’t mean they are stupid or even less intelligent than I am. In fact, I believe most of my cousins are pretty damned smart people (at least the ones I’ve had the luck to get to know). I took it that I needed to reiterate it in a different way in order to make my communication clearer.
Change is part of life. Nothing ever stays the same. That includes living languages. Which means that as time moves on, the connotations of words may shift or even become something completely different than what they used to be. This happens because of the difference in context between one person and the next.
For example, I’ve written about the fact that even though there is only a 4-year difference between myself and my elder sister, we grew up in different contexts. Well, it is more that we were in different contexts during the same developmental stage. As we discuss the differences now, we come to understand each other better — and I believe that we have become better friends because of it.
But it required the both of us to move outside our own contexts and look at the changes from a different perspective.
I truely believe this is what is required to deal with the serious issues that are facing us. We can’t stay stuck in our own contexts, we must be willing to try to put ourselves in the context of the person(s) we are communicating with.