Connotation creep

Something I’ve been noticing increasingly with the rote use of political/civics language, is a curious, somewhat sneaky attachment of connotations to otherwise unobjectionable terms or phrases. The “creep” comes into it, not because it’s creepy (although it sometimes is), but on account of something akin to mission creep; an array of new connotations starts to steer the use of the phrase away from it’s original purpose.

Consider the pair:

1) “You’re free to speak, but you’re not free from the consequences of your speech”.

2) “You’re free to speak, but you’re not free from the consequences of your speech” *Taps baseball bat in hand/[insert implied retribution]*.

The first is often deployed in response to bigots of various stripes who think their public speech acts are immune to criticism – I.e. as a rebuttal to authoritarians who think they’re entitled to be viewed as liberal and to have their critics gagged at the same time.

The second I’ve actually seen deployed by people who’ve tried to pretend that they’re being oppressed by another on account of a speech act, and therefore that a retaliatory threat (or act) of violence is justified – E.g. what boils down to InCels warning women that they reserve the right to violence should they hear the word “no” too often. There are obviously other possible instantiations of the corrupted form as well.

I use the above example not because I’ve seen the connotation deployed recently, but because in its more extreme state, it makes what I’m talking about relatively clear. The difference between the furthest extremes in meaning is stark and hard to forget, but only once you’ve had the opportunity to see it. The creep is usually more subtle in the wild.

You get to wondering, once you’ve seen the creep and then the uncorrupted meaning being used again, just who a person’s been talking to. Have they borrowed the phrase without thinking it through? Do they know how else they could be read? Are they, somewhere, unwittingly co-operating with someone who’s got an investment in the creep? Do they on some level sympathize with these motives, or have a bias that prevents them from seeing them in the first place?

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This corruption isn’t like the right’s overt co-opting of language (particularly the co-opting of terms that the left has used to criticize itself). That’s usually pretty blunt – more of a connotational lurch, than a creep. If they weren’t jacking our shit, I’d almost respect their openness.

But no, the creep is a worry too. It’s insidious, especially among bros.

“You’re denying her agency!”

A phrase meant to highlight how a women’s role as a decision maker and interest holder is being sidelined from consideration is relatively apt to creep towards something that serves the bros. Just remove power from the analysis, and treat all the current options on the table as the only ones logically possible, and all that’s left is to smear the people criticizing the situation as “denying her agency”. Never mind that the bros may be actively restricting the options she has to choose between in the first place.

Consider the bro who’s gaslighted and socially isolated his partner to the point where she’ll accept any crummy choice from a list of crummy choices. Consider the bro who’s deliberately selected and “helped” a partner with body image problems. Consider the bro who’s rendered his partner deliberately vulnerable through a hundred ratcheting steps. Then consider her modelling on social media to impress bro’s friends, submitting to injurious sex acts, you name it.

“Maybe she likes performing ass to mouth for his gurning bro friends to watch and laugh at! You’re denying her agency!” There are other examples along the continuum both less and more extreme, and if you line them up in graduations you can creep, creep, creep your way along them – if you’re that kind of asshole. If you’re really good, and have the aid of a compliant crowd, you can pass your shittiness off as woke in no time at all.

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It’s practically a law of the Internet that as a phrase or term goes viral in social justice circles, it’s meaning will creep towards something more regressive. The corrupting agents are plural; marketing departments, MBA speak, narcissists, aspiring social media cult leaders, hipster brocialists, and on and on; the usual eaters of meaning.

It didn’t take long for the “spoon theory” disability metaphor to be used by “good allies” without disabilities who were just looking for a convenient term to express their exasperation.

“This thread is tiresome. I’m all out of spoons”.

“WTF Byron? You don’t even have a disability!”

And fark. “Good ally” itself doesn’t necessarily connote what people think it does anymore (if ever). I’m sick of getting a pat on the head for that one. Don’t be shocked if you call someone a “good ally” only for them to ask you what you mean, and to quiz you on your expectations.

“Safe Space”: That’s been creeping since the 80s at least. It used to be the product of women’s officers on campus, and it had little to do connotationally with “trigger warnings” or “no-platforming”, both of which have had their own substantial creeps as well. Think better lighting, women-only spaces, security guard patrols/escorts during the late hours, intercoms, anti-harassment policies and so on and you’ll be closer to the “safe space” of yore.

I’d ask you this, a favour: If you consider yourself progressive, travel in progressive circles, socialize enough, and still wonder what the fuck I’m on about here, keep an eye on something for me. When you see a designated “safe space”, keep an eye out to see how lesbians are catered to.

Lesbians – lesbians of colour especially – have often been the first to go under the bus in ostentatiously progressive spaces. As a social group in political circles, they’re easy to isolate and then exploit, attack or easily exclude.

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The examples of connotation creep aren’t lacking if you pay attention. There are things that I suspect, though, that could be of help in keeping conversations from being corrupted. If the thought of my offering advice seems too didactic, feel free to ignore me and skip the rest of this piece.

Don’t reward or encourage people for rote-repetition of cant. This just encourages people to say the words more, but without encouraging them to really think about what they’re saying.

Don’t be quick to dismiss things as “semantics”. Possibly there are few better climates for the corruption of meaning than those where people have decided to deride discussions of meaning.

Do avoid political cant when plain language will convey your meaning with economy. This way you can keep your meaning without edgelords wanting to pervert it – and you’ll be more easily understood. Orwell was right.

Get to really know political language if you can, especially its etymology. I keep seeing people saying that etymology is irrelevant ala the genetic fallacy, but this strikes me as wrong-headed in much the same way as the “why are their still monkeys” creationist argument. Old meanings can still be in play in every day language, if not the foundational literature. Knowing what’s out there as best you can helps you get your point across without participating in the corruption.

Don’t let people guilt you about being careful with words, especially if you’re a writer. You don’t have to be self-flagellating, but writers are supposed to give a shit about words. Allowing others to manipulate you is often tantamount to giving editorial control to people who aren’t entitled to it.

Be fair on yourself and adopt the lexicon at your own pace. Don’t beat yourself up if you need to ask someone to explain a neologism clearly, although give them a little leeway for pace as well.

If people are quick to anger with you, and accuse you of being obtuse, reconsider whether they’re worth having a discussion with. You can’t have an honest discussion with someone who doesn’t want an honest discussion.

Try to preference publications that take a care with these issues. Personal choice isn’t the world-changer some people think it is, but you may be able to positively influence discussions in your own space if the media you take to it is more carefully selected.

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I doubt there’s more I can say on connotation creep at this point that’s not redundant, vague or boring. I’m trusting that people reading this can get my point. It’s not that hard.

I’ll confess this is all somewhat shaped by the kinds of conversations I’d like to have – but if you’ve got this far then possibly you’re similarly inclined.

I hope this has been helpful.

~ Bruce