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On Rhetoric and Language

I love the band Queen. Does this mean that I have feelings of romance towards four men I have never met? Of course not. The statement of love, used in this way, is known to mean that their music means a lot to me. This is part of the natural evolution of a lexicon of any kind, made ever more complex with the advent of the internet and “web speak.” Words and phrases take on new and unintentional meaning over time to better suit the parlance of the day. This applies to rhetoric as well, often employed to be more persuasive and misleading, depending on those employing it.

Words such as incredible, amazing, and wonderful have grown to become used popularly to simply mean “good.” Now, the difference in pointing out the misuse of these words in common speech is generally pedantic and will not win you any friends; words change with the times, meaning ebbs and flows with society. At its root, I believe we all know this to some degree, understand it, and employ it, as necessary. The same can be said about adding vulgarities to speech for inflection.

This stumbles into the notion posed by Ludwig Wittgenstein that language is purely a way to put an understandable picture into someone else’s head, so they understand what you are trying to convey. Wittgenstein devised a game/thought experiment in which all language can be reduced to pictures, or abstract visualizations to convey even the most complex of linguistic concepts.

Considering that most people, however consciously, view language in this way (that of being adaptable and evolutionary), is an overall boon for communication regardless of contextualization. However, with contextualization becoming part and parcel to most people’s understanding of language, this has led to severe and dire disconnects when using certain language.

An example:

Sometimes people use "respect" to mean "treating someone like a person" (A). Then there are people who use "respect" to mean "treating someone like an authority" (B).

Sometimes people who are used to being treated as an authority say, "if you don't respect me, I won't respect you," which really means "if you won't treat me like an authority, I won't treat you like a person."

‘Respect’ is often thrown around as if it means the same to all people. But, even beyond the above example, ‘respect’ does not mean the same to those belonging to (B). There are those who believe respect is a given (i.e., towards authority) and those who believe respect is earned (i.e., “give me a reason to respect you”). You see this disconnect come into play when someone who is rightfully upset speaks “disrespectfully” (a more concise term for this would be “not nice”). People, especially those in positions of authority, often view “angry” or “mean” speech as disrespectful. The question that arises from this, their occulted definition of respect aside, is would they listen if the person speaking to them was “nicer” about it? Chances are, they would not, hence the “disrespect.”

When placed into rhetoric and “arguments,” words such as respect, racism, homophobia, division, and even morality, itself, can be weaponized. Often called “scare-tactics” in reference to the media, the concerted and focused use of words like these can be massively effective to swaying many people to a certain way of thinking, more so if their chosen meanings and visceral mental connections to those words aligns with what is being said. This simple act changes the dynamic of language in a society.

We can use the same words but, depending on our meanings for those words, we can educate, enrage, or assuage. Words have their technical definitions, but the way in which I speak of morality, race, evil, and equality is going to be, generally, far different in meaning and purpose than, say a white Southern Baptist man’s.

This is how a police station burning in response to systemic racism and murder can be seen as “monstrous and amoral” by the same group that sees no issue with the genocide and rape of North America’s Indigenous peoples. Technically speaking, both acts fit the definitions of those words to the letter, yet somehow, they are incongruous to people who believe the former. As with ‘respect’ above, the basis for and delineation of universal morality, is an idea for a later time.

For now, what we can do is look at the language we use. A “think before you speak” attitude paired with an ability to take linguistic criticism and change accordingly is in dire need for all peoples. Every single one of us can benefit from this, for ourselves and by helping others to view their true meanings of what they are attempting to express and then augmenting their language thusly.

The attempt to use the same language falls woefully short of efficacy when the definitions and over-contextualization muddies clarity. It is hard, self-reflection so often comes to late after passing judgement. It is work, ongoing and endless.

Until honesty prevails (within and without) and the buzz words die, we are all just talking in circles and saying nothing.

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