In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice meets Humpty Dumpty, who casually redefines familiar terms and expects her to guess how. “When I use a word,” says the scornful egg, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”. Of course the poor girl flounders as language only functions with shared understanding. Well, something similar is happening in our national conversation.
Over the last few years, young progressives have broadly broken with the generation before them in terms of ideology, methods of engagement and nomenclature. Embracing the legacy of Occupy Wall Street in the United States or the Freedom Charter here, the young Left eschews old-school union and electoral politics and instead uses hashtag activism and performance protest to loosely form the Woke movement. There is an infusion of welcome energy from these Social Justice Warriors, whether they’re “feeling the Bern” or donning red EFF berets. But the coalitions that traditionally dominate progressive politics creak and crumble as the ebullience of youth leads to impatient calls for revolution over reform.
A new vocabulary arose via “Black Twitter” to form a crucial part of a social consciousness opposed to sexism, racial oppression and capitalism, values shared with the older generation. Words like “Whiteness” and “Privilege” usefully acquired new functions in explaining how the past defines the present while other gimmicky terms like “cisgender” feel like shibboleths that serve as secret handshakes. But if it’ll really improve someone’s day, I’m happy to use it (though I draw the line at “womxn”.
The words we use reveal and reinforce deeply held beliefs and a new vocabulary can help to challenge some of the unsavoury legacies of our unequal past. Compare the plight of the tragic “spinster” as opposed to that of the swinging “bachelor”, or the shame of being a “slut”, “harlot” or “strumpet” versus the strutting pride of being the man who sleeps with said “hussy”… for whom no derogatory label exists. Terry Pratchett pointed out, “The price of a good woman is proverbially above rubies, so a skillfully bad one is presumably worth a lot more,” yet language has for millennia served to buttress the patriarchal edifice that criminalises and commodifies female sexuality.
But some linguistic innovations are less helpful. In his seminal essay on language, George Orwell argued that imprecise speech can be used to justify bad behaviour and that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity”. For example, classic government euphemisms such as “pacification” have been joined by austere corporate terms like “collateral damage” and “neutralise” to replace the more accurate “visit the wrath of God on one’s foes and sow the fields with salt”. This blurs the edges of what is deemed acceptable in the way that “enhanced interrogation techniques” clean up Torture and being “right-sized” sounds less demoralising that getting “laid off”. Branding matters, which is why we fear “Killer Whales” more than “Sea Pandas”.
For all the positive results of modernising language to reflect egalitarian values, there is Orwell’s danger that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”. Much has been written about Triggering, Safe Spaces and the “Coddling of the American Mind”, a phenomenon also found in South Africa, and the Chilling Effect that Woke culture can have on Freedom of Speech. The Political Spectrum can sometimes resemble a Möbius Strip more than a ribbon and various pieces discuss how extremists can go so far Left they pop up on the Right, exhibiting militant tendencies or merely embarrassing themselves and Progressivism (we’re looking at you, Trigglypuff). Rather than add to the rich canon arguing that kids are not all right, I’m more interested in tracing the roots of this generational disconnect in the South African Left.
Nick Haslam uses the idea of “Concept Creep” to explain how shifting definitions “exacerbate failures to communicate” and “can produce a kind of semantic dilution” and a loss of moral perspective. If speaking harshly to someone is considered “abuse”, the same term we use for punching them, then a false equivalence is created between verbal and physical aggression while the distinction should be clear: one makes you a criminal and the other makes you a jerk. “White Supremacis” no longer evokes white cloaks and bad wigs but now describes almost anyone who doesn’t ascribe to Woke orthodoxy (“House Nigger” or “Uncle Tom” are used for black dissenters).
Depending on your reading habits, you may be familiar with this nomenclature or you may not… even if you consider yourself steeped in Progressive Lore. Ironically for the Age of Communication, our media environments are sharply balkanised as we consume and share information we find agreeable and stick in our ideological media bubbles. So people who watch Fox only watch Fox and people who watch CNBC do not and very few browser histories include World Daily News and Salon. With such intellectual entrenchment, Echo Chambers emerge where certain ideas become Truth and others Abomination without the need to interrogate either.
Whichever Kool-Aid we prefer, it’s easy to slip into ideological enclaves in which we only encounter comfortable opinions – we can simply unfriend or unfollow those who disagree with us – which is slow poison to one’s critical reasoning faculties. As a lecturer, I’m lucky to be surrounded by a host of competing opinions that keep me guessing (and laughing and crying), but lecturer-student conversations have the safety net of the chain of command and our Journalism programme is blessed with rambunctious but genial debaters. That does not appear to be the case at the University of Cape Town, where geniality and civility have been in short supply of late.
This brings us back to the redefinition of terms. The acrimony at UCT has largely unfolded in a toxic environment where angry groups expend many misunderstood words that other equally angry groups don’t even hear. The bloom is off the rose of Fees Must Fall and last year’s heady mix of racial and class solidarity has faded and fractured in a depressing display of selfish agendas and identity politics. The burning of paintings in February dampened public enthusiasm for Rhodes Must Fall, our most visible exponent of Woke activism, as did the disruption of an RMF exhibition by the UCT Trans-Collective in March and continued friction between a feminist lobby and the movement’s allegedly patriarchal elements. FMF has suffered a similar fate as students go back to their studies and the public and the African National Congress sharply condemn any renewed attempts to sustain the campaign.
The leaders of that struggle must be frustrated. They were doing something important and felt important too. In a faux revolutionary Echo Chamber, the dramatic language of war and conflict are used to gin up emotions but the downside of such patois is a sense of anti-climax when the “battle’s” lost and won and everyone goes home. If you and everyone you know formed part of a revolutionary vanguard ready to die for freedom, it’s a trifle deflating to have your concerns reduced to deadlines and tests.
I imagine this dynamic fuelled much of the fire and fury over Ntokozo Qwabe’s confrontation with a white waitron and ensuing backlash, but I’m more interested in the communication problems caused by conflicting meanings of the words he uses. Because most of us don’t often encounter views outside our ideological comfort zone, we only hear the extreme or outrageous examples from elsewhere. For most, Qwabe’s Facebook post must have been eye-popping yet clearly his words and deeds were praised fulsomely in his social circle… because they meant something completely different in that context.
“Violence” refers to structural discrimination based on race, class and gender instead of the more traditional meaning of physically causing someone harm. I’ve questioned this idea on this platform before as it positions power dynamics before the actual role of fists and flesh, but its greater danger is its ability to muddy the ethical waters around the use of force. If striking someone who has more structural power than you is no longer “violent”, the implication seems to be that it is no longer morally reprehensible. This is the crux of it: changing the meaning of a word doesn’t somehow obliterate the subject of the original definition! Woke members of RMF are confusing “violence” for Voldemort.
The same danger exists with competing definitions of “racism”. Politicians like Julius Malema and Woke writers like Andile Mngxitama will sharply tell you that racism is no longer defined as animus towards a group or individual because of ethnicity but is “a system of power historically created out of violence to oppress, exploit and dispossess blacks to benefit whites”. “Black” means any racial group that has suffered at the hands of white colonialism, which includes every group on the planet (this might be startling news for latinos, Asians and Indians). While I disagree with these tortured definitions, I would be willing to suspend my disbelief were it not for the bizarre logical leap that therefore “blacks can’t be racist”.
This is that same linguistic alchemy at work: by changing the name for something, that something ceases to matter. Even if we accept that “racism” does not mean perceiving or interacting with people differently because of their race, that phenomenon still exists! So if a black person mistreats someone because of their skin colour, that is still an anti-social thing to do, right? Clearly Qwabe and his adherents disagree but they can only hide their sophistry behind the unstable meaning of words.
So for argument’s sake, let’s accept these definitions while maintaining that violence and racism (in the old sense) are still unethical. Minister Blade Nzimande used the word “chauvinism” to refer to prejudice displayed by black people, and “bigotry” would also work. If one needs a word to describe the act of physically interfering with someone, “assaul” or “manhandle” suffice. So I can temporarily accept that “blacks can’t be racist”, but they can be bigoted chauvinists and subject to the same Hate Speech laws as everyone else. In similar vein, physical acts against a source of authority might not be “violent”, but sticks and stones can still break my bones.
So when Qwabe says, “We are here, and we want the stolen land back… NO white person shall rest,” we need to be able to ask him what he means and understand his answer. Similarly, I detect a missing “yet” in the sentence, “Like the part where we take up arms hasn’t even come and y’all are already out here drowning us in your white tears?”
Ah, “White Tears”. I’m once again very conscious of my Privilege as I write this. Several pieces out there suggest that “the white equivalent of being Woke is knowing enough to know you know nothing. To know you should shut the fuck up and listen” or that people like me should withdraw from public debate. Qwabe refuses to engage with the “white media until the land is returned” and even Max du Preez thinks I “should behave” because “white people should never ‘police black pain’ or censure black anger”.
Never? Most of our legal system exists to “police” human emotions. If I come home to find my spouse in bed with someone else, I’m not allowed to kill them because I’m angry. Jon Stewart points out the absurdity of blindly using emotion to justify deeds by imagining Jeffrey Dahmer’s lawyer arguing, “Yes, my client killed and ate his neighbours, but at the time… he was hungry.” No one’s denying anyone the right to feel pain, merely limiting the means whereby they express it.
This is where precise language is so important. I applaud the benefits of progressive evolutions in language discussed above, but there is the danger of stunting communication, deepening ideological intransigence and robbing words of their meaning. When an RMF spokesperson describes vandalism and intimidation as “students who choose to act out their pain”, anyone should be able to point out the problem. I’m feeling neither fragile nor tearful and I am not “violently policing the pain of the black child”.
I am calmly criticising the views and actions of a black adult – exactly as I would those of anyone else of any other colour – rather than taking comfort in the “soft bigotry of lowered expectations”. We need to share a common understanding of words and a willingness to use them if we’re ever going to put Humpty together again.
Even if that means getting egg on our faces. DM
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine