Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Tyranny of Terrible Terms

Lots of people complain about jargon in academia.  I tend to focus on conceptual stretching--that a term gets used to apply to more and more stuff so that it loses its essence.  My favorite example is imperialism--what is and is not imperialist?  Damned if I know.

I had a sudden realization when reading this piece that has a similar take on neo-liberalism what is a larger dynamic that separates useful phrases embodying bounded concepts from overly stretched labels that have lost their meaning: when a word is hurled as an insult by one set of intellectuals at others, the term has lost its value.

I am not sure what neo-liberal means because it already had different meanings depending on whether one was talking about International Relations Theory, economic policy, and whatever else.  But now it is a way to label folks with whom one disagrees.  And poof, whatever use of the concept is gone.

Another kind of example is how the "War on Poverty" and such has now become the war on everything, where it is mostly value-less (war on Christmas).

What are other examples of formerly useful words/concepts that gone down this path from useful to insult to meaningless?


John O. said...

Though these concepts may never have been precise enough to be useful, I would add both "modernity" and "post-modernity" and their variations. Both originally referred to specific socio-historical developments, but they are now applied to nearly everything, from architecture to video games, and have used as a weapon slung around academic debates so much that they are quickly becoming meaningless.

Your poker buddy, Frank said...

Great post, Steve! Here’s my entry for your Spew contest - Neoconservative!! Overused as an insult and void of ANY relevance in explaining Iraq or US foreign policy more generally. Want proof? Here’s my case.

Kay Metviner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kay Metviner said...

Great post, and something that I have been thinking about lately in discussing terrorism. Given that 'terrorism' has never had an agreed-upon definition to start with, it may not be a cut-and-dry example of conceptual stretching, but I would argue that the past couple of decades have seen the term used more for political aims across the spectrum than for accurately describing crimes. I find that the US administration is becoming increasingly comfortable calling any foreign combatants who aren't wearing military uniforms, and even civilians who stand in the way, terrorists; and these same "terrorists" refer to many US military actions as acts of terrorism. I think we have become aware of a similar situation among Syrian rebel groups and the Assad regime in recent months, with all groups insisting that it is not them, but the other who is the terrorist.

Putting all sides' rhetoric aside, the only obvious commonality is that the terrorist is the enemy, and the use of the 'terrorist' label seems aimed more at garnering support than defining particular traits of a person or group.