The last year has not been kind to our language. Students throw racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, etc. around to end a conversation on a virtue signal instead of engaging in a challenging discussion. While the necessity to use these words may be more frequent, their meanings, and thus the arguments stemming from them, lose their punch without proper definition. John McWhorter, a distinguished linguist at Columbia University, observes: “The Martian anthropologist would recognize no difference between the way those accused of being witches were treated in 17th-century Salem, Mass., and the way many innocent people are being accused of ‘racism’ today.”
The fact that Americans are conducting race-based and other sensitive discussions without proper definitions is by no means a new phenomenon. Historically, the progressive left has used political correctness and language policing to shape the definitions of political terms. A relatively benign example is the word “welfare.” It includes so many different temporary aid programs that even the most politically aware citizens have trouble defining it. Defining the term “welfare” is not a widespread topic of conversation, however. Race and racism is a different story -- it is now fashionable to discuss how little anyone wants to talk about race. This observation is often made by young adults and college students who are privileged enough to have time to devote to extensive media consumption. Race is a topic for discussion, not an integral part of their daily lives. People who have typical jobs and families don’t spend their precious free time discussing race and class relations. College students, on the other hand, have ample free time.
One would think that the free time to experiment with new ideas and definitions would lead to more clarity, or at least consensus, about what words like “racist” mean. As we can see from protests at the University of Missouri, UC Berkeley, and Middlebury, we are far from a consensus on the definition, let alone a good discussion of the topic. There is a need among college students to fit in on campus, and rarely does it matter what the majority opinion is. What matters is who is the loudest. As a college student, I understand this. In an environment with so many friends, peers, and activities, there is substantial social pressure to mold your opinions to comport with “acceptable” standards. This fear propagates through student bodies across the country and paralyzes any potential genuine conversation about our beliefs or even language.
This year, as Editor of Enquiry, I am hoping to change some of these conversations. I honestly do not expect to change many people’s opinions – since I trust that as a student body, we have reasons for our beliefs. What I will try to do, however, is change the way we have these discussions.
Students founded Enquiry in 2013 to elevate debate on campus and to amplify silenced perspectives. These perspectives were conservative. Now, I see a somewhat different need for us to fill in the current campus environment. I want us, as a student body, to work on defining our language and thus our thoughts before jumping to insults. I want us to critically analyze our beliefs and disagree with each other. Often.
So here is my proposal: write for us. Simple, right? You have opinions and we will pay you to publish them here. That’s not quite the full answer. It can be nerve- wracking to publish opinion pieces on a small campus – it took me months of hemming and hawing before I published my first article. Even if you do not write for us, argue with what we publish.
This year, Enquiry will focus on definition – the literal definitions of words, the definitions of personal beliefs, and the clarity that students can bring to conversations that we may not have the opportunity to hold outside of a college campus. As John McWhorter put it, we want to discourage the use of language as “a mere angry bludgeon used by a certain set of people committed to moral condemnation and comfortable with shutting down exchange.”