If I say blue, are you confused? But I might be thinking cobalt while you are thinking cornflower. Maybe the person next to you is colorblind and can’t tell blue from green. Maybe the person next to them is completely blind and can’t understand color. Maybe we weren’t talking about color at all. Maybe we were talking about emotion.
Words are less precise than we think.
Am I a Jew? I probably wasn’t born Jewish. I was raised to be Jewish. I have cultural experiences that are Jewish. I identify with Jewish history. I don’t subscribe to the religious beliefs. I don’t practice Judaism. There are people who will dislike me because of my Jewishness, regardless of how I feel about the religious beliefs. If the question relates to religion, I am an atheist. If I am accused of being Jewish, then I am a Jew.
Words are contextual.
Why do we call people Latino whose origins go back to long before Columbus stumbled upon the Americas? What is “Latin” about Latin America? Thousands of languages have been spoken in the Americas, yet we refer to people as Hispanic. Why should a Quechua speaker be called Hispanic? Why should a Guarani whose second language is German be called Hispanic? Why do we even call that language Spanish? Lots of languages are spoken in Spain, Castilian is only one of them.
Words have history. Words erase history. Words categorize.
In the old movies I used to watch with my father, they used the word gay all the time. But I’m pretty sure The Gay Divorcee with Fred Astaire was not a coming out of the closet story. When the Flintstones told us to have a “gay old time” they probably weren’t suggesting we all go out and attend a pride parade.
A word’s meaning, use and significance changes over time.
Lots of people have defined themselves as libertarians. Do Noam Chomsky and Ron Paul mean the same thing when they refer to themselves as libertarian? No. Not exactly. Two people who know each other well may know exactly what kind of libertarian they mean and can use the word and continue on their merry way. People who don’t know each other will have to clarify if they want to be sure they are talking about the same thing.
Words are shortcuts. Sometimes a shortcut will get you there faster. Sometimes a shortcut will get you lost.
It may seem like we are just fighting over words. But it isn’t because of words that we fight. Words are just the imperfect tools we have to express the conflicts that are an inherent part of being human.
As humans, we fight to self identify rather than having other people label us. We want to have our histories included and not obfuscated by the narrative of the “winners.” We struggle with our desire to be understood. We feel connections with people who have similar experiences to us. We try to find ways to honor the things we value most in life. We struggle to differentiate ourselves from people who don’t seem to value the things we do, even though that struggle is often just a reflexion of our own self hatred and self doubt. We use words to imagine how things might be.
Some words are more loaded than others. The more complex the meaning of a word, the more care we should take when using it. But when even a word as simple as blue can be misunderstood, is it really possible not to use loaded language? How long would every conversation be if we removed every word that represents years of history and philosophical discourse?
We can’t stop fighting over words. All we can really do is keep questioning and clarifying, both our own thoughts and the thoughts of those around us. We can keep in mind that words are understood through the lens of our experiences. We can respect the history of words. We can respect other people by allowing them to define themselves in the way that feels right to them. We can remember that words are sometimes weapons. And we can wield them with care.