Semantics matter more than you think

Ryan Lee
Guest Contributor

Nobody likes buzzwords.

At least, nobody likes the word “buzzword.” We think of clichéd words like “workflow” — words that almost meant something at one point, but are now little more than hollow sounds — and imagine some sleazy marketing executive in a fluorescently lit meeting room planting the word in a PowerPoint slide with some brightly colored piece of irrelevant clip art.

There’s a good reason for this: Connecting simple, bite-sized phrases is an important part of branding. The creation of buzzwords through slogan or rhetoric is a simple way to get someone to associate with a brand reflexively. It’s hard to talk about liking something, especially when discussing something found online, without having to clarifying that you’re talking about your personal opinion and not a button you pressed.

Think of the last time you read a heated ideological argument: You might have heard friends talking about “contributing to society” or a YouTube commenter talking about how the modern Democratic policy is “socialism.” You might even have heard someone mention “KONY 2012” in a serious manner.

These phrases are empty in most of the contexts that they’re used in and their speakers are dismissed as a result. It is that same emptiness that allows them to propagate and infest everyday vocabulary.

Nobody has to think about what socialism actually is in order to weaponize the phrase and pepper it into speech. This is a self-perpetuating cycle; the emptiness of a phrase lets us use it without thought and the thoughtlessness with which we use that phrase empties it of meaning.

Nowhere is this cycle stronger than on Tumblr.

Tumblr’s very structure lends itself to thoughtless regurgitation; the combination of the dashboard system and the reblogging function create an echo chamber where people not only speak through preconstructed phrases, but shut out any dissenting opinion.

As a result, dialogue on Tumblr is usually confined to a statement which reads something like, “Can we talk about how people still don’t think rape culture exists?” followed by pictures of actor David Tennant pointing up and saying, “This!”

While it would be significantly more productive to break things down into whatever the writer is actually trying to talk about, it’s usually enough within a blogger’s sphere to use the premade catch-all. People read it without thinking, decide they agree with it, press a button and send it further down the pipeline.

Of course, the second the post leaves the sphere from and for which it was created, it’s met with derision. Even people who might normally agree with the poster’s sentiment dismiss it as “social justice warrior” drivel and ignore it. The “social justice warrior” could have the most reasonable point in the world, but it would fall on deaf ears.

Unfortunately, this ethos has ramifications into and beyond everyday conversation.

The way we talk about things influences the way we think about them, because the goal of speaking is to create an image in the brain. Because a phrase that uses this kind of Internet language creates a vague image, it is difficult to glean much thought from it. When this kind of language becomes predominant in discourse, it follows that arguments are usually vague and empty. It only touches on the surface of an issue and almost actively prevents thinking about the issue in depth.

People with vague ideas about what they’re trying to say use vague terms to talk at people who only parse vague ideas before throwing vague responses back. Words are strung together and catapulted at a wall built out of the last string of words that was tossed. It’s like how a punch thrown from the elbow, rather than the core of the body, will bounce off the target and leave the puncher wincing in pain.

There is a way to break free of this cycle: It’s as simple as saying what we’re thinking in our own words.

It’s surprising how much traction you can gain when you tell someone to consider what other people have to go through instead of telling them to simply “check their privilege.”

It’s surprising how much more powerful you make a message when you talk about something like the despicable treatment of the Steubenville rape case by the media in specific terms instead of summing it up as “rape culture.” Even something so simple as telling someone they shouldn’t be blaming victims as opposed to accusing them of “victim blaming” can do so much to pierce the wall we’ve built out of buzzwords.

The issues that we talk about are important, which is why it is important we do not drown them in manufactured language. Our beliefs are more than just some brand and if we want anyone to care about what we’re saying, we have to care about saying it.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply