Words that once defined policies that could be counted and measured have lost their scientific and dictionary meanings to the point that they create chaos in communication. This chaos is one of the fundamental breakdowns in our ability to form cohesive mutually acceptable political and social institutions. I’m convinced that most of us want the exact same things, but we differ in how to reach those goals, or we think we differ in how to reach those goals based on an inability to communicate effectively.
Since I graduated from grad school, many of the words sociologists used to describe social systems have been appropriated by the general public and used to express an emotion-based belief rather than a situation arising from a set of measurable circumstances. Left and right no longer refer to labor vs business. Socialism has come to mean human services rather than government ownership of the means of production. Now, the dictionary still seems to agree with me that socialism is government ownership of the means of production, but those who know this are few and far between.
What is wrong with words changing meaning? The changes hamper mutual understanding of common interests and goals. We can get quite confused even to the point of finding others offensive. If you read Louisa May Alcott’s Under the Lilacs, you will discover that the little boy in the story is constantly ejaculating. No. He is not having an orgasm under the lilacs. He is speaking, but the change in common usage of the word ejaculate does make us giggle or blush. Today, a gay party is something quite different from when I was a little girl wearing a pretty dress with ribbons and going to birthday parties where we played games and giggled. Still, when we pick up an older book where little girls go to gay parties, we may have to stop and think for a second before we catch the meaning. It is where we have that little pause to figure out what this person is talking about that misunderstandings creep in.
Now we may giggle or blush over something innocent suddenly sounding smutty. Smut being another word that has changed meaning from having a bit of dirt on your nose to being slightly lewd. However, in a society where social divisions have reached a volatile point, understanding words and what they mean is crucial. I do wish that if someone wants to say liberal fascist they would define what they really mean because they are using words that to them don’t mean what they used to mean to social scientists. I confess, I haven’t figured out that brain exploding combination of terms yet, and my dictionary isn’t much help.
Many of our political and social structure words are going through vast changes in popular usage. I’m seeing tremendous confusion for the person who doesn’t have a background in social sciences or economics. The lay person will argue that socialistic societies have always failed. I will agree that systems where the government owns all the means of production failed. The reason for that failure is another story for another day. However, with the change in understanding of the word socialism people want to believe that systems of providing human services have caused economies to collapse. No. No. And No. Providing human services and government ownership of the means of production are two different topics, but both have come to be described with the same word.
Without an accurate understanding of the meaning of words, we have a population that cannot make appropriate political decisions that benefit their own interests or the interest of the common good. We either need to define what we mean when we use the word socialism or find a new word for government ownership of the means of production. Fascism is another word that needs to be defined in usage until we can all agree on the current meaning as something different from the measurable policies that have defined the word in the past.
At this point, the best we can do is admit that even if we are all using the English language, the words we use may not mean what we think they mean. Who is right about usage isn’t important, what is important is that we define what we mean so that our listener hears the message we are trying to communicate.