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Loaded Words

Loaded Words
by Greta Christina

Note: This is a weird one. Except for a couple of movie reviews, it's the only piece I ever published whose conclusion I now disagree with almost 100%. I still think the topic is interesting and worthwhile, and I like some of the places I got to along the way; but since I originally wrote it, I've done a fair amount of reading on linguistics and neuropsychology and how language works in the mind, and I now believe strongly that my conclusion -- namely, that the language and definitions you use to talk about a thing shape and control how you think about that thing -- was completely and utterly wrong. So in the interest of honesty and full disclosure (or perhaps in the interest of sheer perversity and cussedness), I'm including it here. Enjoy.

I have an ongoing argument with my best friend about the word "bisexual." She claims, quite vehemently, that words are useless unless they have a specific meaning that is generally understood by everyone using them, and that therefore we need to agree on a single definition of bisexual and stick to it. (Not surprisingly, she feels that her definition is the one we all should use.) I claim, equally vehemently, that everyone has a right to define and name her or himself, and if that means that there are four hundred million bisexuals with four hundred million definitions of the word, then we'll just have to live with that. (Naturally, I still think my definition is the one that makes the most sense.) I think I understand what she's getting at, and I think she understands what I'm getting at, too. But we have yet to come to an agreement.

This piece isn't about bisexuality, though. "Bisexual" is only one of the words that provokes this sort of conflict -- the inability to agree on terminology, the angry, defensive vehemence that the arguments over the terminology stir up. Other words leap to mind as well: racist, sexist, feminist; Christian, family, community; pornography, censorship; gay, lesbian, transsexual, transgender; dyke, faggot, queer, whore, slut, pervert, nigger (Christ, I can barely even bring myself to write that last one, much less say it). Forget about deciding whether or not we like the words, or whether we like the ideas and/or people they represent. We don't even know what they mean. And yet we use these words, and we use them the same way we use the rest of the language -- as if we knew what the hell we were talking about.

So why is it so hard to come up with language that everyone agrees on? Why can't we agree that the definition of, say, "bisexual," will be such-and-such, and if there are people and ideas left out by that definition, simply agree to use a different word to describe those people and ideas? Nobody gets their knickers in a twist about what we mean by the word "blue." Nobody writes angry letters to the editor because the word "laundry" doesn't include bookshelves -- or does include bedsheets. And the only people who have heated debates about the definition of the word "fish" are linguists and ichthyologists and people who are really stoned. (I have, in fact, had long weird discussions about what exactly constitutes a "salad," but these discussions certainly didn't have the life-or-death quality that the bi-debates have had.)

But some words are loaded. And because they're loaded, coming up with definitions for them doesn't have the quasi-random quality that other words have; that sense that we call it this but could easily have called it something else, that it doesn't really matter as long as we all call it the same thing, and if we find another thing that doesn't have a name, we'll just give it one. In the words that they'll probably carve on my gravestone -- it's not that simple.

Loaded words are... well, they're loaded. They come with value and judgement attached; sometimes positive, sometimes negative, and very frequently a muddled and weird combination of the two. And at least some of the heated quality that these words have has to do with the value attached to the words. Pro-porn and anti-porn feminists attack one another by saying, "They're not really feminists;" progressive and fundamentalist Christians condemn one another by saying, "They're not truly Christian." Heavy players in the S/M community put down lighter players by saying, "Oh, she's just into bondage -- she's not really a sadomasochist," and progressive gay activists dismiss conservative or apolitical people in the community by saying, "He may be homosexual, but I wouldn't call him gay." People place a high positive value on these words; when they hear them used to describe people they ridicule or despise, the word itself seems devalued.

Of course, a negative judgement can also contribute to making a word loaded. When a woman who sleeps with both women and men says she isn't bisexual because bisexuals are flaky and confused and don't care about anything but sex, her decision to call herself a lesbian instead is clearly influenced by -- as well as contributing to -- the negative weight carried by the word bisexual. If the word bisexual weren't so loaded, if it were a more neutral word like Midwesterner or coffee-drinker or brunette, she might be more likely to use it -- and she might be more comfortable with her own behavior. For the record, I think she has the right to call herself a lesbian if she wants -- like Miss Manners, I believe it is polite to address people in the way they wish to be addressed. But I suspect her choice of words is, at least partly, motivated by biphobia, by her belief that the word bisexual means "a bad person to be scorned and feared."

And even more complicated and heavily loaded are the words that carry both positive and negative weight. There are derogatory words, words like queer and slut and whore and the notorious N-word, that some people want to reclaim, even wear as a badge of honor, a Purple Heart for survivors of intolerance. There are words like Christian or lesbian, that carry a different value judgement depending on who is speaking and on who is listening. And there are words like sex and power and anger and pride, that carry mixed judgements in themselves, almost regardless of who says or hears them.

But the debates around these loaded words aren't just about whether or not we value the particular idea or type of person the words represent. I would argue that, when we fight about the definitions of these words, what we're often fighting about is the hidden and unexamined concepts that underly the language.

For example. When people debate the definition of the word bisexual, I believe that they are really debating other questions, questions that are complicated and messy and difficult to think about directly. Questions like: Which is more important, who you have sex with or who you don't have sex with? Is sex more important than romance? Is sexual activity more important than sexual attraction? (Or the more universal version of that question: Is identity defined by feeling or behavior?) Is fantasy the same as desire? Is desire the same as intention? Is gender born, or learned, or both?

And look at the word "racist." There are huge, heated debates about it: whether it's possible for people of color to be racist, whether it's possible for white people not to be racist, whether certain opinions and beliefs and practices are racist by definition. When you boil them down, many of these arguments come down to a question of how the opponents define the word racism; as personal prejudice, or as systematic oppression.

But to say that a problem centers on a language barrier does not mean the problem is trivial. The differing definitions of word "racist," for instance, point up seriously differing ways of looking at the problem of racism. If you define racism as the systematic (if not always conscious) economic, political, social, cultural, and spiritual oppression of one race by another...well, that says something very different about you than if you define it simply as discrimination on the basis of race. It means you see the problem differently; it means you have a different sense of how important the problem is; and it probably means you see different responses and solutions.

In addition, there is often a circularity, a chicken-and-egg quality, to the definitions of loaded words. The way you understand racism, for instance, will certainly affect the way you define the word; but the way you define the word will also affect how you perceive the concept. If you've always believed that racism is when one person treats another badly because of their skin color, you may have trouble even conceiving of a more widespread, insidious, class-oriented type of racism. But if you can't conceive of systematic racism, you probably won't see it when you look around you...and if you don't see any systematic racism around you, you'll probably keep on defining racism as personal prejudice....and merrily around the circle we go. Your definition of the word filters the way you see the world; and the way you see the world, filtered through your definitions, re-enforces the way you use the word.

This circular nature of loaded language can have some very creepy, Orwellian effects. A friend of mine was in a primarily gay/lesbian/bi/trans/queer/whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it AIDS activism group that got into some very nasty bi wars. When the question of who got to define the word lesbian arose, one of the bi-phobic lesbian separatists came up with this solution: "The lesbians will define who is a lesbian." Now, in a purely semantic sense, this is a meaningless statement, even an absurd one, the sort of thing you might see in a lesbian version of Alice in Wonderland. But the sentence is not, in fact, meaningless. The meaning is crystal clear: "Women who do not and will not ever have sex with men will decide whether women who do or might have sex with men may be defined as lesbian." Or to put it another way, "The people who fit the most narrow definition of the word will decide whether or not the definition is to be expanded."

To me, this says a great deal, not only about how this woman defines the word lesbian, but about how she perceives the community in general. It is a substantial dividing point in the gay/lesbian/bi/trans/queer/whatever community. Is it a public club or a private club? Does it include anyone who says they want to join (and who pays their dues and brings cookies to the bake sale); or does it only include people who get recommended by current members?

These are not trivial, angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin semantic debates. For one thing, the definition of a word determines who gets to be included in the activities of people defined by that word. If you're a transsexual woman attending a women's event, the definition of "woman" becomes much more than a question of semantics. It determines whether you'll be accepted and welcomed at the event or kicked in the ass and shown the door. Words have real-world consequences; it may seem like abstract quibbling to debate the definition of family, but when you look at adoption laws, and surrogate mothers, and kids being taken away from their queer parents, the question of who gets to be called family becomes very real indeed.

So when I hear the words, "The lesbians will define who is a lesbian," the meaning I hear is, "This is a private club. We have to maintain our high standards, or the place will be overrun by riffraff. Get a recommendation from two club members in good standing, and we will consider your request for admission at the next annual meeting." And that, folks, is not my vision of our community. My vision is that of the public club. If you say you want to join, if you show up and work and pay your dues, then you're a member, and you get to vote on the bylaws. That is my vision -- and that is how I try to use the language.

But when I look at the public vs. private club conflict, I begin to understand part of the reason these words are so loaded. The words aren't just about identity, or positive and negative value judgements. The words are about danger. The words a community uses to describe itself do more than just define the community; they define the perceived dangers to the community.

For instance. When anti-porn feminists say, "Susie Bright isn't really a feminist," or when pro-porn feminists say, "Andrea Dworkin isn't really a feminist," part of what they're arguing about is what they consider to be dangerous to women. Both groups might define a feminist as someone who sees women being injured by a sexist society and who fights to defend women from those injuries. But there are fierce arguments over what constitutes danger and threat and injury to women; degrading pornographic imagery that perpetuates objectification and violence against women, or fascistic and repressive censorship that silences the free expression of women's lives (to boil just one of the arguments down to an oversimplified dogmatic summary). And when we argue over which of these dangers is most valid and most important and try to determine where and what we should be fighting, it all too often turns into a quarrel over who is or is not a feminist. The way the danger is perceived determines -- at least partly -- the way the word is defined.

And when lesbians argue over the inclusion or exclusion of bisexual women, the arguments often focus, not on what would be good for the lesbian community, but on what might be harmful to it. The anti-bi lesbians fear pollution and betrayal; the pro-bi lesbians fear intolerance and McCarthyism. And the bisexuals sit around wondering how the hell we got turned into the Frankenstein monster.

So which do you think is the greater danger? Impurity or elitism? Infiltration or divisiveness? Confusion or exclusion? The answers you give, I believe, will affect the way you define your community -- and, therefore, yourself.

Copyright 1997 Greta Christina. Originally published in Pomosexuals: Challenging Assumptions about Gender and Sexuality, edited by Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel, Cleis Press.


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