Tuesday, June 22, 2010
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone of voice, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
An admirable point of view, in some ways, though possibly leading to confusion on occasion (especially for poor Alice when she went through the Looking Glass). As someone who, if told she could have only two books on a desert island, would likely choose a Thesaurus as one of them, I embrace linguistic versatility. Nonetheless, successful communication requires that there be some agreement about what words mean.
Words matter. They matter a great deal.
Advocates for women’s rights, or for any social justice issue, routinely encounter co-opting of words by the opposition. The most egregious example is Ward Connerly’s “American Civil Rights Institute, ” which works ceaselessly to eliminate affirmative action and to halt redress of past discrimination. You also have to love (NOT) the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-choice group that asserts our feminist foremother was a rabid anti-abortion activist and polemicist – at least an overstatement, and arguably just plain wrong, according to some Anthony scholars.
As frustrating as this is in political discourse, though, it is somehow even more frightening when it happens in the commercial and popular culture contexts, where it’s often more subtle. And after all, at this point we expect it in politics, unfortunately. We all, and young people in particular, are inundated with images, words, songs, advertising campaigns, and other media messages that twist the meaning of words and concepts, with far-reaching and diabolical consequences. Whether warping girls’ and women’s body images, or celebrating alcohol consumption or drunken partying, we seem to be at the mercy of advertisers.
Which is why my appreciation for language change and growth suffered a shock when I saw a recent ad campaign by apparel company Diesel. It appears that ‘stupid’ no longer means ‘dull-witted, slow of mind, unintelligent.’ Now ‘stupid’ means ‘risk-taking, creative, brave,’ compared to ‘smart’ as ‘dull, staid, lacking spontaneity.’
I’m all for creativity and living a full, rich life, and I bet you are too. But we need our young people to celebrate learning, and strive to acquire critical thinking skills, and embrace their own growth and development. Equating stupidity with brilliance, promising the reward of “a hell of a hangover” if you’re brave enough to ‘be stupid’ --- that’s not stretching the meaning of words, it’s not expanding our understanding of language, it’s not even promoting innovative thinking. It’s just . . . well . . . stupid.