Privatising The Commons

Modern activists challenge inequality and prejudice using a new and urgent language that seems to come straight out of university social science departments[1]. As I’ve said before, at 7 syllables, “intersectionality” doesn’t sound like a word coined on the picket line.

Academics have their prejudices, just like the rest of us, but they are also in the business of promoting their ideas. That’s fair enough. It’s literally how they make a living. They create or redefine words, often explicitly at the beginning of their theses, because that allows them to control the associations users have when they come to mind. Their vocabulary choices aid their agendas and help to keep them in book contracts and TED talks.

All language is demotic and democratic. Meaning is decreed by consensus, by habitual usage of a whole population[2]. The problem comes when academic theories put forward for debate are used by campaigners as objective, undebatable facts, all too often by activist-academics, themselves, who ought to know better. Then definition ceases to be a way of clarifying understanding and becomes a way of hijacking a language community’s collective property. 

Digital technology has amplified and pluralised individual voices literally millions of times. This has allowed the activists to ape a commonality of usage that looks like consensus. If a word is being used millions of times in a particular way, this looks like its meaning, even if all those usages come from the same group of people. A new term can colonise a whole discourse in a matter of days. 

But words have a habit of twisting away from their original owners. Once out in the public forum, they become worn and blurry from overuse, not exactly understood, used in vague, approximate ways to express imprecise emotional, relational notions. 

This has led to a world of confusion, with angry people slipping and sliding between different meanings and associations of the same terms, especially if activists have tried to repurpose a word that already has very strong associations, like “racist”[3]


[1] Is this because more people are going to university?

[2] For this reason, “Common Misuses” (“Envious” vs “Jealous”; “uninterested” vs “disinterested”, etc.) is a self-contradictory term. The meaning of a word is its use in a language community.  If it’s “Common” it’s not “misused”. “Common Confusions” is a more accurate term. 

[3] And then there are terms that are used differently in different and geographically distant language communities, but are now brought together by the internet. Usually these confusions are resolved by adopting the American usage. “Momentarily” used to mean “For only a few seconds”, as in, “He was momentarily confused”. Now it is always used in the American sense, “immanently”/ “in a moment”, “Please fasten your seatbelts as the flight will commence momentarily”. That’s Cultural Imperialism, for you.

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