The Demeaning of Language

April 15, 2014 § 5 Comments

Slavery is, by definition, a condition where one human being is owned by another.  The condition of African Americans in the US South prior to the Civil War was one of slavery.  Slavery is NOT an unpaid internship.  It is NOT working a bad McJob.  It is also not what happened to African Americans after the Civil War in the South.

After the war, many allegedly free African Americans were made to work on the same plantations they had been enslaved upon.  They were not paid.  They were viciously, and cruelly exploited.  Their civil rights were deeply and fundamentally violated.  And this is a stain on American history that is not spoken of.  The standard narrative is that the slaves were freed and that was the end of that.  But this status of allegedly free African Americans after the Civil War in the South was not slavery.

There is a fine distinction to be made here between the ownership of someone else’s person and the exploitation of someone else’s body or economic power.  A slave has next to no rights.  Slave owners in the pre-Civil War South were free to buy and sell their slaves at will.  They had almost free range to do whatever they wished with and to their slaves.  Men violated and raped their female slaves.  Men beat and savaged their male slaves.  Slave owners broke up families because they could (see my post on the Carolina Chocolate Drops for a powerful story of a freed slave woman).

The allegedly free African Americans after the war, forced to work on the same plantations they had been enslaved on, were not slaves.  They were personally free, even if that freedom amounted to less than a hill of beans.

My college is hosting a partial film-screening of Sam Pollard’s 2012 film, Slavery By Another Name, this week, along with a talk by Rebecca Hill, an historian at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.  I fully understand Pollard’s rhetorical point in his documentary.  The term “slavery” is one of the few that still has the power to shock, and Pollard capitalises on that in drawing audiences in for his documentary and exposure of a more or less forgotten period of American History.  This is a documentary that all Americans and anyone with an interest in American Civil Rights should see.

But the problem is that when we use words like this, we demean their meanings, and lessen their impact.  Take, for example, the term “fascism.” That term is thrown around like it means nothing in political circles in both Canada and the USA, by all sides, to describe anyone and anything the speaker might disagree with.  In the end, “fascist” doesn’t really mean much anymore, and has no shock value.  That is not a good thing.

The same thing will happen with the words “slave” and “slavery,” too.  Especially if otherwise well-off white, college-educated young men and women continue to use those terms to describe their unpaid internships, or if we continue to describe the plight of adjuncts in the academy as a form of slavery.

Language is symbolic.  We use words to describe concrete and abstract theories and ideas.  They are meant to be symbolic for the theories, ideas, and things we are describing.  Language is obviously how we communicate, and if we demean and cheapen our words to the point where they lose their meaning, I’m not entirely sure how we communicate at all.

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§ 5 Responses to The Demeaning of Language

  • Couldn’t agree more, Matthew. Language, and our current propensity to dilute true meanings of words, such as slavery, or terrorism, undermines and utterly diminish their impact. Especially when that overuse or strategic use is made by those in power, as it is by world leaders and their use of terrorists to label environmental activists or any dissenters for that matter.

    In forgetting the historical use we do a great injustice to those events or persons that helped define those terms.

  • Brian Bixby says:

    On the other hand, I’ll play devil’s advocate, and say that such extensions and transformations of terms are normal in language, and serve a purpose. Such words are clearly repurposed to communicate outrage, and to demand a response from others commensurate with that outrage. It’s also a counterpoint to the use of terms that make a bad practice sound acceptable.

    Consider one of your examples: internship, The concept has honorable connotations of learning and being apprenticed to a trade, and yet it is now in some fields simply a way to exploit young people for their labor. How does one counteract such innocuous language? Simple, by using invidious language instead.

    In fact one could argue that the real debasement of language is taking honorable terms, and applying them to concepts far removed from their original purpose. An adjunct professor sounds much akin to a tenured member of the faculty, instead of belonging to an entirely different class of being, a temp worker with an advanced degree. And one could easily argue that, whatever their legal status, the blacks in the South were really not better off than slaves, a point you almost concede yourself. Calling them free labor and free citizens debased the meaning of THOSE terms, but quietly, euphemistically.

    I do deplore the use of the term “slavery” to mean other things; having just had a faux-libertarian tell me that getting a welfare check makes one a slave, I certainly agree the term is abused. But I think simply denouncing such uses as a corruption of language misses important reasons why such things happen.

    • Brian: Many things to respond to. I agree, language evolves and changes over time, words get repurposed, for example, the verb to curate. But other words are used to describe things that are outrageous in their very existence. Like: slavery, fascism, Nazis, etc. Once we start throwing around those words to describe this, that, and the other thing, the words lose meaning.

      Take, for example, the word socialist. You and I, PhDs in History, know what a socialist is, at least what the original meaning is. But that word gets tossed around like a hot potato on the political right in this country, everyone to some of them is a socialist, from Obama to John McCain, from Rachel Maddow to Stephen Colbert. The result? “Socialist” has no real meaning anymore other than it’s an insult you throw at someone you don’t like, kinda like my grandfather called people who annoyed him “farmers.”

      You could also make the same argument about “liberty” and “freedom”, words that have become essentially meaningless in 21st century America.

      And, yes, whatever you want to call the free blacks exploited in this manner in the South, they were no better off than slaves. But they weren’t slaves. And certainly, free labour.

      But, with respect to the last point, that simply denouncing this as corruption misses the point of why such things happen. However, that’s not what I said, I said that this is what bothers me, though there are reasons why this happened. But this is not the correct term for the situation.

      • Brian Bixby says:

        I don’t think we’re so much in disagreement as emphasizing different elements of the issue of reuse of language. As a coda, I once wrote a piece called “Arguing with a rabid right-winger” which contained the following observation: If all else fails, they will simply call you a “socialist,” the all-purpose term of condemnation, used so generally as to have lost any meaning.

      • Oh yeah, I think we agree, but, hell, the narcissism of small differences, as Freud said. As for the right wingers you speak of, I understand that all too well. Hence my current research project.

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