3 Controversial Words We've Drained of Meaning

Good going internet. We've smurfed up our language.
3 Controversial Words We've Drained of Meaning

I remember two things about the Smurfs -- one is that the cat had a great name (Azrael), and the other is that they used the word "smurf" for everything.

3 Controversial Words We've Drained of Meaning

My Twitter/forum avatar is actually a combination of Smurfs Azrael
and Batman Azrael. Get it? Yeah, nobody does.

It was actually a running joke. Like, they would tell humans that "the smurf smurfed the other Smurfs" in order to say that someone had kidnapped the other Smurfs, which made absolutely no sense to the humans, and the other Smurfs I assume eventually starved to death in captivity.

It's easy to just think the Smurfs are dumb, because they are, but we've done the same thing to a lot of our most popular words. We've used them to mean so many different things that other people no longer have any idea what that combination of letters means when we use it. That's why Rich Mullins' song "Awesome God" was once about an infinite and terrifying being unleashing his power to create and rule the universe, and is now sung in youth groups everywhere as a dated '80s spin on how totally radical God is, bro.

Here are some other words we have bludgeoned the meaning out of.


Getty source images

The word "hate" has somehow become an umbrella term for racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and any type of wrong attitude toward a group of people. It's very handy to replace a really long list with a four-letter word, like how I halve the time it takes to make a grocery list by just writing "food."

But just like some of the things I buy at the supermarket are not food by any definition of the word (Swiffers, toilet paper, Hot Pockets), a lot of these wrong attitudes don't involve the emotion we normally think of as "hate." "Hate" sounds like neo-Nazis stockpiling ammo and posting all-caps rants about blacks and Jews on, uh, Pinterest, or wherever neo-Nazis hang out (not a neo-Nazi expert).


I was joking, but, uh ...

Meanwhile, "hate groups" are groups whose sole purpose is to be against some other group, like they are so obsessed with being against gays or something that they have formed a club to spend all their spare time figuring out how to stop them.

This level of anger and obsession is what most people think of when you talk about "hate," and most racists or sexists or whatever do not feel that emotion. I think it's pretty obvious that most of the racism in this country is carried out by people who don't think they're racist, which is why it was so bizarre that Brad Paisley's "Accidental Racist" song implies that unintentional racism is some unusual kind of racism people need to be made aware of, instead of pretty much being the official racism of America.

Most of what's going on is better described as ignorance, which may sound like letting people off the hook or going easy on the racists. But ignorance, and especially willful ignorance (which accounts for maybe most cases) can be more damaging and even harder to stop than hate, because it's so evasive. You can't change a person's idea if you can't get them to admit they have it.

3 Controversial Words We've Drained of Meaning

"Could you please stop staring at my neck?"
"Why, I don't know what you could be talking about!"

And people will cling very hard to ignorance of certain facts, because they're afraid if they admit something is unjust and their group has got the long end of the stick, they are going to have to give something up. Sometimes the thing they have to give up is not a really big deal, like not using a certain word. Sometimes they don't have to give up anything at all, because righting the injustice helps everybody. But, hey, why take chances? It's safest not to give an inch.

Because they think that Step 1 is them admitting there is an injustice, which doesn't sound so bad, but then you have a secret Step 2 where you take things away from them, and then more secret steps later where you start setting yourself up above them. So that's why they won't admit real obvious things, like that women getting raped is a big problem. It's not about admitting the one fact, it's about the other secret things they know you're planning to steal from them after they admit it.

3 Controversial Words We've Drained of Meaning

"I know you're saying you just want me to take your assault seriously, but what you're secretly trying to do is put all men in a concentration camp and reproduce by parthenogenesis."

Also, grouping these issues together under an umbrella word makes it sound like they're all caused by the same thing, like if you cure a person's sexism they also won't be suspicious of immigrants anymore. It makes people think that a vague, blanket call for "acceptance" is a panacea for racism, misogyny, sectarianism, xenophobia, homophobia, discrimination against the disabled, and what have you. Unfortunately, the truth is that you have to address misconceptions of each group one by one, which is a much longer and more tedious slog than making vague Facebook posts about how hate is such a terrible disease -- but in the end, the slog is far more productive.

The other problem with the umbrella word is that the "haters" keep trying to sneak under the umbrella themselves, calling denunciation of white supremacists "hate speech," leading to very confusing arguments. Take away the umbrella and they have to invent ridiculous terms like "reverse racism," which is a lot funnier to watch a person try to take seriously.


3 Controversial Words We've Drained of Meaning

At first glance, "victim" seems like a pretty simple word. It's someone that something bad has happened to. But society can never leave a simple word alone. We've added two implied meanings to it, both of which turn conversations into fiascos left and right.

One is "fake victim." You've probably heard the phrase "she just wants to be a victim." This is dumb if you take the surface definition of the word, because who would want something bad to happen to them? But they're actually using the word to mean "fake victim." They're saying this person wants to be considered a victim even though nothing bad has happened to her, in order to get sympathy.

3 Controversial Words We've Drained of Meaning

Nobody, man or woman, deserves to be compared to a professional soccer player.

People complain about "a culture of victimhood" and "victimization" until it sounds like there's more fake victims than real victims out there. Is there really an epidemic of people feeling sorry for themselves? Maybe. I don't know. But there sure is an epidemic of complaining about it, to the point that there is no way of saying someone is "the real victim" in a situation without sounding sarcastic or corny. It really makes it hard to draw attention to people who are truly getting screwed over.

The other terrible meaning we've added to the word is "just a victim." Since a victim is an object of an action (something bad was done to you), there's an implied passivity. If you're "just a victim," then you're just a person that gets things done to you. A "victim" by this definition doesn't fight back, or move on, or heal -- they just sit there and suffer.

That's why rape survivors often call themselves survivors instead of victims, because "victim" has been saddled with the unfortunate baggage of meanings like "coward" or "weakling" and the implication that they're too passive to fight for justice or healing or whatever their next step is.

3 Controversial Words We've Drained of Meaning

"Well, you're not being hit by a car RIGHT NOW, are you? It's in the past. Stop feeling sorry for yourself."

And "survivor" works in that case, but in general it sucks that you can't even use the precise word meant to describe terrible things happening to a person without at least one listener taking away the implication that the "victim" is either not trying hard enough or is pretending for sympathy.

For some reason, it has this effect only if the damage to the victim isn't immediately visible. I don't think anyone's ever heard about a burn victim and immediately suspected them of exaggerating or said to them, "Stop sitting there being all burned."

3 Controversial Words We've Drained of Meaning


3 Controversial Words We've Drained of Meaning

This is one of the most annoying acronyms I have ever seen, and I lived through ROTFLOL. We had a pretty big Jehovah's Witness infestation (sorry, I don't know what the collective noun is) in my town when I was growing up, so I thought SJW stood for some kind of Jehovah's Witness, maybe "Single Jehovah's Witness," something a JW would use in a Craigslist dating ad. It turns out it stands for "Social Justice Warrior," and once upon a time was used it sarcastically to refer to overenthusiastic people who thought they were fighting for social justice and defending the oppressed but were actually ineffectually jerking themselves off on Tumblr.

Back in my day, we called it "political correctness," but no one will use that term now because old people do. It described an overly zealous liberal type who was oversensitive to any hint of racism or sexism and would accuse you of genocide if you called a black person "African-American" when the current popular term was "person of color." These people were usually quite white and often did not know any black people. They just got boners from going to bat for a "poor, oppressed people" that possibly didn't even want their help.

Internet people decided to sarcastically call these people Social Justice Warriors because they seemed to visualize themselves as mighty crusaders fighting for justice when they were actually typing quietly on computers on behalf of minority groups that probably didn't even care.

3 Controversial Words We've Drained of Meaning

"Now to change the world! Dear Jack Black: Have you considered how your last name co-opts the experience of people of color?"

Unfortunately, this term got big on the Internet, which is the ruin of all things. It was picked up by racists and sexists, who had a much lower bar for who was being overzealous on behalf of the oppressed. Basically, if you were against racism or sexism at all, you were going waaaay overboard. "Maybe black people are human," you would say. "Whooooooa, slow down there, Malcolm X," they would say.

Fast-forward to the present day, when you can pretty much guarantee that anyone who calls you a SJW is not only a racist or sexist but a fairly nasty one. It no longer works as an insult because people get called that and go, "A social justice warrior? Social justice is a good thing! Warriors are cool! Why are you misogynists complimenting me?"

The neo-Nazis and misogynists aren't as dumb as you think -- they're deliberately trying to create a narrative that there are two equal and opposing sides, the discriminatory assholes in question and the "SJWs." This is like if there was a tiny, gross movement that wanted to pick their noses in public (the Free Booger Movement, say), and they called everyone else an Anti-Booger Advocate. Every time someone told them, "That's gross," or, "Haven't you ever heard of a Kleenex?" they would mutter about these people being part of the Anti-Booger agenda who are simply repeating typical ABA talking points.

3 Controversial Words We've Drained of Meaning

"This isn't about hygiene, it's about FREEDOM."

Instead of having to face the truth that normal human beings everywhere, completely unconnected to each other, independently realize that public nose-picking is gross, they can believe that there is some secret, central organization that for nefarious reasons is trying to stop nose-picking, and it's fooled people everywhere into believing its propaganda. That everyone who dislikes nose-picking ultimately gets marching orders from one place.

Even worse, some people on the "right side" actually buy into this narrative, that fighting racism (or sexism) automatically makes them part of a monolithic club, or a team. They proudly hitch their identity to everyone cool on that "team." They make up their own special slang and inside jokes and look down on people who don't know it. They look for high-fives every time they drop a zinger on someone from the other side, even if that zinger changed no one's mind and didn't get any new info out there.

Being proud of the "SJW" label can lead a person into almost as bad a trap as the assholes calling them that. You feel like you can leech off the prestige and identity of people genuinely fighting for civil rights and equality if you just insult the same people they are arguing with. Someone writes an essay about sexism in the tech industry and engages with people who disagree with her by providing further reasons to back up her argument. You pile on and tell the people who disagree that they suck. Yeah! You're an equality fighter!

3 Controversial Words We've Drained of Meaning

"I Photoshopped that racist's head onto a hippopotamus! I'm this generation's Martin Luther King Jr.!"

It becomes about clan mentality. It stops being about what you do and how you do it and starts being about what side you are on. As long as you are on the "right" side, you get lazy about keeping an eye on your attitudes and your tactics.

If the term "SJW" hadn't been ruined, it would have fit these people perfectly. The self-aggrandizement implied by that phrase perfectly sums up a person who champions social issues only to get a high from self-righteousness and the excitement of imagining Internet drama as a "battle" they are fighting in. The exact same delusions as the racists and misogynists they're arguing with.

We just need to ignore that stupid word -- no more labels and badges for decent people just doing the right thing. I do wish we had a replacement for the original meaning, a quick and easy reminder phrase to nip that behavior in the bud, to tell our friends they're starting to act the same as the bad guys. Social Justice Warrior Wannabes (SJWW?). Nah, that'll just get stolen by the jerks again to mean "normal people."

Well, that's probably as good a lesson as any to end on.

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