two girls arguing

Words. Insubstantial Words

Words seem solid and weighty. In reality, words are neither static nor stable. Not only can they change over time, but they can have wildly different meanings and connotations, to different people, at the same time.

This can have big implications, as was driven home to me recently. I have encountered, in the last couple weeks, two instances of people being out of alignment in their understandings of words. The words in question are feminism and socialism.

What Does “Feminism” Mean?

I was listening to the 2019 podcast Dolly Parton’s America. In the first episode, host Jad Abumrad asks Parton whether she thinks of herself as a feminist.

He and his producer think the answer will be yes. In the episode, they speak about the success Parton has had as an artist and businesswoman over her long career.

The episode features some of Parton’s earliest songs, written when she was a young woman, many of which are about young women in tragic circumstances. Tragic circumstances were all too common among the women Parton knew while growing up in Tennessee in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. And yet, few songs on the radio were told from a female perspective. Parton’s songs were groundbreaking.

But Parton’s answer to the question about feminism surprises them. Does Parton consider herself a feminist?

“I do not. I think of myself as a woman in business. I love men. . . . ‘Cause I have a dad, I have brothers, . . . The word feminist is like, ‘I hate all men.'”

The difference of opinion here is not about the facts of Parton’s life. It’s about an all-too-slippery word, one that can seem inflammatory or reasonable, bigoted or empowering, depending on whose brain is engaging with it.

The host and producer thought feminism was a movement toward women doing things that traditionally only men were permitted to do. Parton, as a woman in business and the arts, who guided her own career, seemed, in their minds, to embody the feminist ethic.

However, Parton thought feminism was a movement toward hating and antagonizing men.

Happily, the three come to an agreement at the end of the episode. They agree that Parton is a “feminist in practice,” distinguishing this from a feminist in theory.

It took a bit of discussion for them to get on the same wavelength as far as the wording, even though they had in their minds the same concept.

That’s great for them—but, unhappily, feminism is such a fickle word that a fourth person may well disagree with their conclusion.

What Does “Socialism” Mean?

Here’s another bomb of a word.

The November 4, 2020, article “Miami-Dade Hispanics helped sink Biden in Florida,” in the Washington Post, illustrates the power of the word socialism:

“The GOP’s attacks on Democrats up and down the ballot as ‘socialists’ resounded with Hispanic voters scarred by authoritarian regimes in Latin America and seeking economic opportunity in the United States.”

While some Republicans use the word socialism as a slur that implies totalitarianism, some politicians on the other side of the aisle proudly use the word. On the Left, the word socialism can mean a form of government that supports citizens in need through programs like Social Security, unemployment benefits, the Affordable Care Act, and (one that was important to me recently) Workers’ Compensation.

When one politician uses a word to mean “Big Brother is going to steal your stuff, rights, and maybe even your lives!”—while another politician uses the exact same word to mean “If you’re having trouble paying the bills because you’re sick, injured, or not able to work, you can receive financial assistance!”—this seems to be a problem.

The United States is quite politically polarized.

(Read my blog post Prescience . . . or Hopefully Not on why one great American thinker believes political polarization is the biggest problem facing our nation today.)

How can we move closer to understanding one another, when we use words that mean vastly different things to different people?

Analysis. What to Do?

Here are some lessons I take away from the above discussion:

  1. Words can mean different things to different people.
  2. Context, depth, and discussion are needed to accurately convey and receive meaning.
  3. A soundbite or Tweet is often insufficient to convey meaning that everyone will understand.
  4. Vague, politically charged words like feminism and socialism are especially prone to having wildly divergent meanings, depending on the person using or encountering them.
  5. When using words as a speaker or writer, be vigilant to possible misunderstandings.
  6. When using words as a speaker or writer, strive to use words in such a way that the meaning is unambiguous.
  7. When listening to or reading words, be vigilant to the possibility of misunderstanding.

What Does “Conclusion” Mean?

Luckily, words do have meaning! We’re not just shouting out gibberish when we try to communicate.

(At least, most of us aren’t. . . .)

When I was in college, “deconstruction” was all the rage in English departments. This is a complex theory that holds that words have much less meaning than we think—in fact, very little at all.

As with most things in life, the reality is somewhere between the extremes. That is, while words can be changeable and open to interpretation, it is eminently possible for us to communicate and understand one another.

When I say, “This is the conclusion of the blog post,” we can all agree on what conclusion means.

(It means, “This is the BEGINNING of a NEW CIVILIZATION whereby I will be the SUPREME LEADER!!!!!!!” We’re on the same page, yes?)

Can you think of any words, other than feminism and socialism, that have different meanings to different people?