Buzzwords Are Threatening Politics. Here’s Why.

“The word ​Fascism ​has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’,” wrote George Orwell in a 1946 essay. On campus, the same may be said of many words in leftist political discourse today. Students rally around terms such as “intersectionality” and “empowerment”, while “toxic” and “problematic” figures are fervently attacked. These words may feel comfortable and intellectual, but in reality they are almost entirely hollow. Seventy-two years ago Orwell decried the emptiness of political language. It is now high time that we scrutinized our own use of buzzwords.

But before we get too critical, it is important to recognize that buzzwords have a long history and are, in fact, an inescapable – and often positive – feature of politics. These words facilitate the creation of group-identities through capturing shared experiences and articulating common struggles. Through forging these collective identities, buzzwords can play an essential role in consolidating – and sparking political action. There is perhaps no more poignant example of this than the #MeToo movement. After actress Alyssa Milano issued a rallying cry for women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted to come forward by writing “me too” on social media, a global movement emerged. Those two so simple, yet powerful words expressed the shared pain and solidarity of women – #metoo was the perfect vessel for collective female rage.

Buzzwords, however, are a double-edged sword. While they are fundamental to any well-functioning political movement, they can also become so diffuse and general that they lose any substantive meaning. The word “radical”, for instance, was first introduced by the British Whig Party parliamentarian Charles James Fox in 1797 in support of reforms that would extend the vote to all men. Since then, the meaning of “radical” has mutated and broadened so much that now, it can be used to describe anything from terrorist bombings to gender neutral bathrooms on college campuses.

Simply put, therefore, Buzzwords have always existed. But in our era of social media they have discovered an even more fundamental role in politics. Indeed, the very nature of social media means that buzzwords alone are capable of holding online political communities together – hashtags have perhaps adopted the mantle of political party membership. These words become the convenient marker of arguments that run in similar ideological tracks, holding together tweets, Instagram posts, and Facebook shares by activists in a sticky mosaic.

Buzzwords are the very life-force of social media activism – on Instagram alone, there are more than 1.5 million posts tagged #metoo and 7.7 million tagged #feminism. But this over-reliance on buzzwords comes at the cost of sacrificing precision for popular appeal. Often, this umbrella political language is applied to posts that are, at best, tangentially connected to the issue at hand whether it be #blacklivesmatter or #intersectionality. These buzzwords thus grow broader by the minute, quickly losing any meaning whatsoever. And while it took “radical” decades to lose any substantive meaning, on social media the same can happen in a number of weeks — even days. What ensues is a mush of leftist thought, ever-expanding yet ever unsure of itself.

Of course, the contemporary scourge of buzzwords isn’t only a left-wing phenomenon. Online right-wing communities employ their own jargon, elements of which did once have some substantive meaning but has since fallen into decay. “Regressive left” serves as a prime example, first coined by Maajid Nawaz to criticize a particular subsection of the political left that embraced fundamentally illiberal views in the name of multiculturalism. It was soon popularized as a right-wing buzzword that served as a catchall for ​anything​ the left did – for left-wing politics itself. This simplification of the political left is far from unique: from “blue-haired SJW” to “libtard”, right-wing rhetoric obsessively attacks left-wing ideology. Off-line, this manifests in hurried dismissals of anything to do with the linguistic monolith conservatives have created of liberals.

This careless use of language by both sides of the political spectrum in the social media age points to a deeper — and more worrying — problem: if entire online communities are formed around and grow out of these buzzwords, the increasing emptiness of this jargon perhaps signifies that the wider movements themselves are equally empty, muddled, and meaningless.

Is there a solution?

Given that buzzwords appear to be emptying contemporary political discourse of any substantive meaning, the solution would surely seem to lie in finding the perfect definitions for these ill-defined and troublesome words. Or better yet, should we do away with them entirely? Given political language is plagued by ambiguity, shouldn’t we veer toward the specific and the concrete?

But the complete riddance of ambiguity is not the solution. As discussed, political language needs to unite the masses—to be, at times, simple enough so as to garner popular appeal, to foster the existence of group identification.

Buzzwords, therefore, are not the problem—what we are missing is critical examination. In our daily lives and on the internet, we should actively challenge the use of our own language to clarify what we actually mean. We do not have to eliminate buzzwords entirely, because they are not harmful in themselves. Instead, buzzwords should be used as invitations into opinions, opinions which should then be substantiated.

What if our political movements, therefore, could use buzzwords as rallying cries while simultaneously scrutinizing them? Performing this delicate balancing act through closely examining these words would both foster a more self-critical and thoughtful politics at the same time as giving these movements the ability to sharpen the meanings of their buzzwords. This, in turn, would give substantive meaning back to political movements themselves.

Nobody intends to be meaningless. Behind every buzzword, there exists an attempt at meaningful political expression. We should strive to tease out these meanings by analyzing our buzzwords rather than getting rid of them. In the end, linguistic generalizations will not collapse our political thought, but its unchecked usage will.

Enshia Li

Photo: Susanne Nilsson



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