Thursday, March 8, 2018

On the importance of defining terms

Communication between people or groups can be tricky at the best of times, but it becomes near impossible if each party has a different idea of the meaning of a term.

Take the word socialism. 
When I hear it I think "Norway", a democratic society with high taxes but a huge social safety net, overall a good quality of life, and the freedom to protest or change government if so desired.
If you think "Soviet Union", a totalitarian government with no room for dissent, we can hardly have a meaningful conversation till we clear that up.

A while ago I expressed my frustration with women who brag about how strong they are, how they do not fit into traditional roles, while insisting "I am not a feminist".
Meanwhile their life has been made possible by decades, nay centuries! of struggle by feminists.

It turns out we have different definitions of the term.

My involvement with feminism, such as it was, dates from the sixties and seventies. I had been ahead of the curve thanks to the influence of my mother and to Simone de Beauvoir, who I devoured at age 18. When the larger movement burst forth I was already married to a man who shared my egalitarian ideals, at least in theory. I never went to meetings or organised protests. I just read the books, subscribed to magazines big and small, and talked with friends. Feminism infused my thinking and I felt myself to be part of the movement. Back then I occasionally felt a twinge of unease at some of the more extreme utterances, but figured that every movement has its fringe.

When I say "feminism" I mean humanism. I think of extending basic rights to 52% of the population. I think of true partnership, of Marlo Thomas singing "Free to be You and Me." I think of the early twentieth century writer Rebecca West who said: "I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat."

I stopped reading the magazines and did not pay much attention in the eighties. I was busy raising children and chickens. I got tired of seeing the broad based movement devolve into hair splitting and squabbling over what we now call identity politics. Apparently that only got worse.

On Facebook I expressed frustration with free strong women saying "I am not a feminist". This led to this input by a friend of my daughter's generation.

"When I was in college, the feminist thought was combative. It ranged from "restrict that job or position to females only" to actual publications that direct women how to sabotage their male cohorts in order to advance yourself. All of that hit me as horrifically wrong and I would also say, "No, I'm not a feminist."

Now I see! If one's experience is with a bunch of humorless strident fanatics aiming for revenge and waiting to pounce on the slightest politically incorrect utterance, I can understand why one would wish to avoid both the association and the label. The friend again:
"Years later I can say I'm not THAT kind of feminist. It's about balance and equality, not excluding one gender to benefit the other."

Amen to that. Let's end this with a shout out to all the excellent men out there who truly support equality.


troutbirder said...

Well said. My moms Norwegian heritage springs forth as my democratic socialist leanings...:)

Ien in the Kootenays said...

Thanks for dropping by.
I love Norway! We would have moved there if they had let us.

Leigh said...

Golly, but you addressing the most important aspect of communication, an aspect which is largely ignored! Without understanding what others mean when they use particular words, no true communication can take place. One of my all time favorite books is Mortimer Adler's How To Read a Book. He states that allowing the author to define their terms is one of the key concepts to intelligent reading. Somehow people seem so emotionally tied to their personal understandings that they are unwilling to give others a fair hearing. This seems to be especially true of politically charged terms. You also point out something else that is important to understand about words - that meanings evolve, which only confuses good communication. The term feminism is a good example.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

Thanks for visiting, I will have to look up that book.

Cynthia said...

Hi, Ien. (And in my mind I did correctly pronounce your name!). Thanks for visiting and commenting on my blog. I read a few posts on your blog and I'll be back to read more, hoping to get to know you a little better. Take care, Cynthia