One of my favorite quotes about communication comes from Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass." Humpty Dumpty is debating with Alice, and he says to her scornfully: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean-- neither more nor less." Alice is not convinced; she replies, "The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things." But Humpty Dumpty responds, "The question is which is to be master-- that's all."
The study of semantics-- how the meaning of words is created and how word meanings can change over time-- has always fascinated me; if you've ever read Shakespeare, there are so many words that meant something quite different in his day compared to what they mean now. And as anyone who speaks English knows, there are many words with multiple meanings, many words with regional meanings, and slang words are changing all the time. But when we look at political communication, we often see a different phenomenon: words being intentionally misused, in order to create a negative meaning when the word is applied to "them," or a positive meaning when it's applied to "us." Consider the word "feminism." I was disappointed, but not surprised when President Trump's adviser Kellyanne Conway said recently, "It’s difficult for me to call myself a feminist in a classic sense
because it seems to be very anti-male, and it certainly is very
pro-abortion, and I’m neither anti-male or pro-abortion... so, there’s an individual feminism, if you will, that you make
your own choices. … I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a
victim of my circumstances.”
I've heard those assertions before, often (but not always) from my conservative friends -- "I'm not a feminist because feminists hate men," or "feminists are professional victims," or "feminists are pro-abortion," or "feminists just want to blame men for everything." Needless to say, none of those assertions are true. For example, I know many women, myself among them, who have numerous male friends and colleagues; and our conversations about the so-called gender wars tend to focus on equal pay, or the lack of affordable daycare, or equal opportunity, not about how men are the enemy. (And by the way, feel free to ask my husband if I hate men-- our 30th wedding anniversary is coming up very soon.) And as for abortion, I don't know anyone who is "pro-abortion"-- that's not what "pro-choice" means. We can respect those who sincerely oppose abortion (and yes, even some feminists feel that terminating a pregnancy is against their religion). But the majority of us strongly believe it's the woman's decision, and the government, the clergy, and various advocacy groups should not be telling her what to do with her own body. And yet, no matter how we try to explain what feminism really says about various issues, it's the Kellyanne Conway definition that's widely believed on the right, where "feminists" are regularly mocked as immoral, man-hating shrews by conservative bloggers and conservative talk shows hosts.
Or consider the word "liberal"-- the philosophy of liberalism, according to the dictionary, refers to believing in progress, believing that human beings are basically good, and that each individual should have autonomy. It also entails taking a stand to protect political and civil liberties; and liberalism is a philosophy that considers government as one vehicle for improving people's lives and addressing issues like racial and social inequality. You can agree or disagree with that philosophy, or debate the role of government in solving problems; but there's nothing inherently evil about believing in liberalism-- except on most conservative talk shows, where "liberal" is a synonym for someone who is un-American and/or un-patriotic; someone who is probably an atheist; a person who "hates freedom" and who believes in a Nanny State; and worst of all, someone who insists on political correctness, and criticizes anyone who dares to speak in ways that liberals consider offensive. Again, much of this is false or exaggerated; but for conservatives, it's the absolute truth. Many liberals have gotten so tired of having the word "liberal" vilified and misrepresented that they often refer to themselves as "progressives." But it doesn't matter: by any name, conservatives continue to stereotype and criticize what liberals believe.
On the other hand, let's be fair: for liberals, the word "conservative" is just as problematic, and it's subject to just as many negative stereotypes. After all, liberals know that the folks on the right are rigid, judgmental, and moralistic; most are religious fanatics who want to impose their beliefs on everyone. Liberals also know that conservatives only care about big business and have no compassion for the poor. It doesn't matter if the dictionary says "conservative" refers to someone who respects and wants to conserve the country's best traditions and values; for many liberals, a conservative is someone stuck in the past, who wants to restore some mythical "good old days," and turn back the clock on the gains that women, minorities, and other marginalized groups have made.
As a professor of communication and media studies, and a former broadcaster, I genuinely don't understand why "feminist" or "liberal" or "conservative" should be used as insults. Who benefits from spreading myths about every person whose philosophy is different from our own? And how does this make our polarized country any less divided? But defining a word or phrase a certain way and then using it to demonize is all too common. I saw this with some of my students who (quietly) voted for Donald Trump-- the story that many on the left believed was that all Trump voters were bigots and haters-- and yes, some probably were. But others were not; they genuinely saw him as someone who could create jobs and improve the economy. Meanwhile, the students who voted for Mr. Trump didn't want to tell anyone, because they didn't want people to assume they must be racist or sexist or anti-immigrant.
In a culture with so many misunderstandings about "the other," that's one reason I've continued to blog: I want to keep creating a conversation about my perspective on the issues of the day, and I want to give others who believe differently a chance to talk with an actual person rather than holding on to some abstract stereotype. I don't expect to change any hearts and minds, but I do hope I can give people something to think about, and maybe even make a new friend or two. So, here I am, your basic center-left liberal, and a proud feminist too; someone who is eager to transcend the stereotypes and myths, eager to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me, and eager to use words in an honest and respectful way... neither more nor less. Believing as I do that communication is the most powerful thing we've got, a chance to keep the conversation going is a chance I feel I ought to take.