I’m a big fan of language. I like how it changes over time and how grammar and culture collide to create an almost living organism. Wittgenstein pondered that language was a “form of life”. He also too pondered “The limits of my world are the limits of my language.” And language itself has a tendency to overcome limits imposed upon it. Language works for us and against us.
One way I’m noticing that language is working against us is the overuse of specious neologisms to explain something that isn’t actually a thing. For example, Christianophobia isn’t a thing in the United States (though it’s definitely a thing in Egypt), though Christians all over the country make LGBTQ+ rights into an act of government-imposed persecution. I don’t see any Christians being fed to lions in the U.S. because I can get married if I wanted to. I don’t see how my getting married cheapens the institution of marriage, or affects your marriage. All I see is political machinations to conflate the issue of basic equality under the law with infringement upon religious freedoms. A simple act of political three-card Monty.
Now, there are also the specious neologisms that fit Bill Clinton’s axiom of “a broken clock is right twice a day.” I’m thinking here of two of the plethora of fourth-wave feminist neologisms: mansplaining and manspreading. Yes, there is that asshole who doesn’t know anything about a topic trying to explain it to a woman because he views her as a fragile creature who must be spoon fed the truth. There’s also the asshole who thinks the bench at the bus stop belongs to him and he must air out his balls because he’s that much of an asshole. But exactly how many men do this?
I’ve personally seen instances of mansplaining and manspreading, but now a single image of a person with a Y chromosome spreading his legs for an instant qualifies as “manspreading”. Any time a man explains something to a woman, regardless of context qualifies as “mansplaining.” My question to fourth-wave feminists is, how exactly is coining nearly meaningless neologisms helping the cause of gender equality?
One theory I have is that creating neologisms is a way of bolstering evidence for some of the deeply problematic concepts embedded in fourth-wave feminism, and those deeply problematic concepts associated with waning Christian status and privilege in the Western world. Namely the existence of an unseen, unknown, scientifically unstudied social force known as the patriarchy (substitute patriarchy with god for Christians). The patriarchy went from a general description of the fact that men held all positions of power in Western society and made all decisions for women and completely excluded women from the decision-making process, to a nefarious force that surrounds us and penetrates us (my apologies to Star Wars fans).
God went from the metaphysical source of all things, to the filling cracks in knowledge that science hasn’t yet spackled. God was a metaphysical stand-in for the cause of things we couldn’t find the cause for. There was a point in humanity where we couldn’t explain how the stars stayed in the sky, and hence we get the explanation in Genesis of a firmament. Most Christians don’t subscribe to this cosmology any more because of science. In the U.S. and Muslim world, God still fills this role to the un(der)educated or non-skeptical. Hence, we get the “god of the gaps” argument.
Since we can’t epistemologically establish the existence of either the patriarchy (as currently defined by fourth-wave feminism) or god, we take these issues on a matter of faith, at least here in the U.S. Here, faith means believing in something despite the lack of (or even dearth of) epistemologically sound evidence.
So these neologisms are created in order to induce language to give meaning to utterances or behaviors that meet epistemological standards of evidence. We create a new word, link it to the tangible, and use it as evidence of the flawed concept we seek to legitimize. It’s become the standard for modern politics to create a neologism for any behavior giving deference to the problematic concept it seeks to bolster instead of doing any sort of conceptual analysis in the first place. Here, we can blame academia.
Academia often goes to extravagant lengths to come up with a novel esoteric concept. It’s how academia has been structured from its beginning. Academia is addicted to conceptual novelty. A Ph.D. student must study something novel and hope that it contributes to the field, regardless of discipline. That doesn’t always require any sort of conceptual analysis of core concepts in the field, and if you can bolster a core concept in a field, then all the better for your dissertation. This plays out surprisingly differently between humanities, arts and sciences. Humanities being an interesting case (philosophy excluded, because it’s all about conceptual analyses). If a core concept were to gain popularity amongst professors in a particular discipline, there may not be any incentive to do an honest conceptual analysis. Hence, we may see the epistemic shift from one sort of ‘patriarchy’ to another sort of ‘patriarchy’. The same can be said of theologians in a desperate fight with science to save the concept of god from ever-progressing and epistemologically superior practice of science.
Thus, to provide evidence for waning ideas, fourth-wave feminist academics and theologians alike create these specious neologisms to provide palpable evidence of their flawed concepts. Saving a concept takes on the form of pseudoscientific studies that become generally accepted as fact divorced from any meaningful context. Ever hear specious statistics on the gender-wage gap (an old garde neologism of feminism) or the effect of prayer warriors (an Evangelical neologism, err, oxymoron) on healing? Even after academia self-corrects and publishes refutations on these statistics, the concept has spread to a non-academic public, not well-versed in letting go of bad ideas. They become legitimized specious neologisms.
And this is my problem with such specious neologisms when they hit the non-academic circles, they become the mauvaise-foi for a particular social group which leads to a lack of authenticity, and therefore the nuance that leads to compromise and understanding between different social groups. You know, the exact thing that pioneer feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir warned us about in The Second Sex.
I doubt de Beauvoir would have much in common with fourth-wave feminists. While mansplaining might have made her radar, manspreading certainly wouldn’t. I feel as though she would ask the same questions as I am asking of the fourth-wave feminist movement. Exactly what is this accomplishing for gender equality?
Not only that, but such bad faith excludes people who would otherwise identify themselves as feminists, from the goal of gender equality. Not everyone is equally susceptible to mauvaise-foi, and as de Beauvoir pointed out in much of her work, healthy skepticism is an antidote for bad faith. So is logical reasoning.
If you believe that men and women should have the same rights under the law, you might just be a feminist. Men have unfettered access to birth control. Women do not. Therefore, the abortion/birth control debate is a gender equality issue and thus, a feminist one. So why are we wasting time talking about manspreading when we have a clear-cut feminist issue right at the heart of the 2016 election and the battle over Scalia’s vacancy at the Supreme Court? Mauvaise-foi.
You want an issue of religion freedoms at stake? How about non-profit organizations which prey on unknowing Christians or even churches themselves, swaying voters to vote against their own interests further impoverishing them and separating them from an adequate education? A deep and constantly abiding problem in American politics et très mauvaise-foi, n’est-ce pas?. And while secular organizations file countless lawsuits to keep nativity scenes off government property. We could be doing more to enlighten our Christian counterparts. Yes, even though they’re Christian, and without the ulterior motive of de-conversion. Humanism is a widely-shared view amongst non-believers, and this just in, Christians are humans, too. So are Muslims. Do we really care if a person is a Christian or not? No, we care if their indoctrinated beliefs affect us, which in a 70% Christian nation, they inevitably do.
We need to stop trying to find trending hashtags for specious religiosociopolitical neologisms (irony noted) and start addressing complex problems with the nuance that will actually solve them. We need to avail ourselves to the deeper context in which society operates. The only way that happens is if we work together to discover that context. Dialogue leads us to an understanding of that deeper context. Lively and contentious discussion, debate, pointing out errors, acknowledging our own errors, and even everyday small talk are in-roads to understanding the differing variables in everyone’s life. It’s the variables that make us unique, and our humanity that makes us similar. It’s our humanity which affords individuals respect, not ideologies masquerading as religion or social movements.