Many of our arguments are fruitless because we don’t know the meaning of the words we use. And we don’t know the meaning of the words we use because meaning is not a property of language that our culture thinks important. In common usage, especially on social media, words are passwords, shibboleths — they are not employed to convey any substantive meaning but to mark identity. You use the words that people you want to associate yourself with use; it doesn’t go any further than that. If they call Israel an example of “colonialism,” then you will too, regardless of the appropriateness of the word.
For this reason, my frequent inquiries into the words and phrases people rely on as identity markers are probably the most useless things I write. But I keep writing them in the hope that at least a few readers will realize that they don’t have to accept the language that is most widely used, that they are free to use other words, or to ask other people what, specifically, they mean by the words they rely on.
In How to Think I conducted such an inquiry into the phrase “think for yourself.”
In a recent essay in Comment I ask whether people know what they mean when they use the word “gender.”
And today I’ve posted a short essay at the Hog Blog in which I suggest that the term “self-censorship” is incoherent and inappropriate.
Those are just a few examples; I could cite a hundred. I keep doing this kind of thing, fruitless as it sometimes feels, because if even a few people disrupt the thoughtless recycling of automatic phrases, some of our shouting contests could become actual arguments. And that would be a win.