The Odd Language of the Left

Language fascinates me. This applies to the study of foreign languages and the pursuit of a proper, ideal form of one’s native language (such as the preservation of the Oxford comma to stave off chaos and confusion), but most importantly to how language is used for political and social issues — what words are chosen, what words are ethical (and in what contexts), how the definitions of words and concepts change over time, and so on.

These questions are important, because words matter. They can harm others, meaning they can be, at times, immoral to use. Individuals and groups using different definitions can impede meaningful conversation and knowledge or perspective sharing, to such a degree that, in cases where no definition is really any more moral than another, long arguments over them probably aren’t worth it.

Despite incessant right-wing whining about political correctness, the Left is doing an important service in changing our cultural language. It’s driven by thinking about and caring for other people, seeking equality and inclusion in all things, which could theoretically be embraced by anyone, even those on the other side of the political spectrum who don’t agree with this or that liberal policy, or even understand or know people who are different. “Immigrants” is more humanizing than “aliens” or “illegals,” “Latinx” does away with the patriarchal, unnecessary male demarcation of groups containing both men and women (and invites in non-binary persons), and “the trans men” or simply “the men” is far more respectful than “the trangenders,” in the same way that there are much better ways of saying “the blacks.” There are of course more awful ways of talking about others, virulent hate speech and slurs; more people agree these things are unacceptable. As far as these less insidious word choices go, replacement is, in my view, right and understandable. Why not? Kind people seek ways to show more kindness, despite tradition.

What I find curious is when the Left begins questioning the “existence” of certain concepts. Finding better phrasing or definitions is often important and noble, but for years I’ve found the claims that such-and-such “does not exist” to be somewhat strange.

Take, for instance, “The friendzone does not exist.” This is the title of articles on BuzzfeedThought Catalog, and so forth, which the reader should check out to fully appreciate the perspective (of those rather unlike this writer, an admittedly privileged and largely unaffected person). It’s easy to see why one would want to wipe friendzone off the face of the Earth, as it’s often uttered by petulant straight men whining and enraged over being turned down. The rage, as noted in the articles, is the mark of entitled men feeling they are owed something (attention, a date, sex), wanting to make women feel guilty, believing they are victims, and other aspects of toxic masculinity. Such attitudes and anger lead to everything from the most sickening diatribes to the rape and murder of women. It’s a big part of why the feminist movement is important today.

Yet friendzone is a term used by others as well — it’s surely mostly used by men, but it’s impossible to know for certain if it’s disproportionately used by men of the toxic sort. If you’ll pardon anecdotal evidence, we’ve probably all heard it used by harmless people with some frequency. We’d need some serious research to find out. In any case, many human beings will at some point have someone say to them: “I don’t feel that way about you, let’s just be friends.” A silly term at some point arose (perhaps in Friends, “The One With the Blackout,” 1994) to describe the experience of rejection. What does it mean, then, to say “The friendzone does not exist”? It’s basically to say an experience doesn’t exist. That experience can be handled very differently, from “OK, I understand” to homicide, but it’s a happenstance that most people go through, so some kind of word for it was probably inevitable. If it wasn’t friendzone it likely would have been something else, and one suspects that if we eradicate this particular term a new one might eventually pop up in its place (justfriended?). It’s all a bit like saying “Cloud Nine does not exist” or “Cuffing season does not exist.” Well, those are expressions that describe real-world experiences. As long as a human experience persists, so will the concept and some kind of label or idiom, often more than one.

The relevant question is if the use of the term friendzone encourages and perpetuates toxic masculinity. Is it contributing to male rage? Does one more term for rejection, alongside many others (shot down, for instance), have that power? Or is it a harmless expression, at times wielded by awful men like anyone else? That’s a difficult question to answer. (The only earnest way would be through scientific study, the basis of many left-wing views.) While I could be wrong, I lean towards the latter. I don’t suppose it’s any more harmful or unkind than shot down and so forth, and see such terms as inevitable, meaning what’s really important is changing the reactions to certain life events. My guess is the word is experiencing a bit of guilt by association — terrible men use it while expressing their childish sentiments about how they deserve this or that, about how women somehow hate nice guys, and so on, and thus the term takes on an ugly connotation to some people. Other terms are used by them less and don’t have that connotation. Readers will disagree on how strong the connotation is, and how harmful the term is, but the main point was simply to ponder how a word for a common experience should be said to “not exist” — it’s hard to discern whether such phrasing intrudes more on one’s knowledge of reality or English. Perhaps both equally. It’s rather different than saying, “This word is problematic, here’s a better one.” I could be misinterpreting all this, and every instance of denying existence is supposed to mean the word simply shouldn’t be used, leaving space for other, better ways to describe the concept, but that just goes back to interest in how language is used in social issues — why say one but not the other, more clear, option? Anyway, read the articles and you’ll likely agree the very existence of concepts are being questioned. Finally, it’s interesting to consider why the Left ended up saying X doesn’t exist rather than, say, X is real and your toxic ass had better get used to it. What if, like words of the past, it had been adopted by those it was used against to strip it of its power and turn the tables? What causes that to happen to some words but not others? Is it because this one describes an event, not a person? Another intriguing question about language.

Similarly, does virginity exist? Not according to some (The OdysseyHer Campus). Again, the sentiment is understandable. Women’s worth has long been closely tied to virginity (read your bible), and with that came widespread oppressive efforts to keep women’s bodies under tight control, still manifested today in incessant shaming for engaging in sex as freely as men do, murder, and more. Men have experienced something related, though far less oppressive and in an opposite sense: women are more valuable as virgins (or with fewer overall partners) and are judged for being sexually active, while men are shamed or ridiculed for being virgins or not engaging in sex. Further, the definition of virginity is open to debate (the definition of friendzone is as well, though the most common one was used above). Is a straight person a virgin if he or she has only had anal sex? Is a gay person, who has regular sex with a partner, technically a virgin until death? Because the word’s meaning is subjective, and because it was a basis of patriarchal oppression, so the argument goes, “virginity doesn’t exist.”

Virginity is a way of saying one hasn’t had some form of sexual experience. For some it’s vaginal penetration, for others it’s different — the particular act doesn’t really matter. It’s simply “I haven’t had sex yet,” whatever form sex may take in the individual mind. Everyone has their own view of it, but that doesn’t make it unreal — in the same way everyone has their own idea of what love is, and yet love exists. Having sex for the first time is quite an event in any human being’s life, and most or many will experience it. Even if our history had been free of misogyny and patriarchy, there likely would have eventually arisen some term for having never experienced sex (or having been turned down). Does the statement “Virginity doesn’t exist” make sense? As with friendzone, it’s a labeled common experience, or lack thereof. While it was and is wielded by misogynistic oppressors, it’s an occurrence, and a concept, that certainly “exists.”

Does having a term for all this harm society and hurt others, helping preserve the hysteria over who’s had intercourse, and the associated maltreatment? Again, it’s possible. But my point is that a term is unavoidable. The state of being is real, thus the concept is real, thus a word or phrase will inevitably be employed. Being “single” happens — does “singleness” not exist? Won’t there always be some way to describe that state? We could get rid of the words virgin and virginity, but there’s no getting rid of “I’ve had sex” versus “I haven’t.” Another phrase or term will suffice just as well to describe the concept. We can abolish friendzone, but “The person I like turned me down” isn’t going away. There may be better words and definitions for concepts, but there’s often no case against a concept’s reality, which is how all this is framed. What’s important is to try to change the perceptions and attitudes toward these concepts, not deny they exist. “Yes, you were put in the friendzone, but you’ve done that to a lot of women you weren’t interested in. That’s life, you’ll live, grow up.” “So what if she’s not a virgin? Should your dateability or worth go down if you weren’t one? Why hers and not yours?” And so on. Indeed, it seems more difficult to change attitudes towards life events when you start off by saying, in essence, and confusingly, that an expression isn’t real.

There are other examples of assertions I find awkward, but as this article is lengthy already I will just briefly mention a couple of them and hope the reader assumes I’ve given them more thought than a few sentences would suggest. “There’s no such thing as race, it’s a social construct,” while doing a service by reminding us we are all part of the same human family, has always seemed mostly pointless in a reality where individuals biologically have different shades of skin and hair texture, and many are brutally victimized because of it. “No human being is illegal” puts forward an ideal, which I support: amnesty, a faster legal entrance policy, and so on (I also support the dissolution of all borders worldwide and the establishment of one human nation, but that may not be implied here). It’s also a call to describe people in a more respectful way, i.e. “undocumented” rather than “illegal.” Still, it always seemed a little off. Some human beings are here illegally, and our task is to change the law to make that history. That the State designates some human beings as illegal is the whole problem, the entire point. True, it’s an ideal, an inspirational call. But I always thought replacing “is” with “should be” or something would be more to the point. But enough splitting hairs.