The musings of an aspiring carver of space

Terminology, and its pitfalls

I'll open with a Fediverse reply I made earlier today:

I love the way [Cory Doctorow] never used the term net neutrality [in his recent post on that Chinese social media company—and their platform peers—and the tendency for such companies to defecate where they eat, to coin a phrase]; not once. :)

Just last week, I was arguing with a stranger on the internet that we need terminology to maximise the limited time strangers are willing to listen to us before tuning out, dismissing us, etc. That is, we're wasting time when we try to reduce absolutely everything to base principles.

This is a lovely counterexample.

And, yes, Cory [Doctorow] rightly has a massive amount of credit with me and many other open minded people, but it's still got me rethinking that position of last week.

Gawd, I love the Fediverse. :)

And it's true: that was exactly the point that stranger was making, last week: that by tying their idea to rewilding half the planet to the term socialism, Vettese and Pendergrass [in their book Half-Earth Socialism] may have tarnished the message. (I'm not even suggesting that Doctorow had that idea in mind when he described net neutrality in detail, without once naming it; but it got me thinking about this, is the point.) My point was that those folks who were turned off by the term weren't an audience worth targeting, or not at the expense of taking more words to outline the position, and thereby losing a much wider, and likely more mixed, audience in the process.

But now I'm not so sure.

I can't decide whether it's Doctorow's writing or his ideas that are exceptional. Maybe it's both. But even if it's only his ideas, his writing is still good; it doesn't detract from the ideas one iota—of that, I'm certain. So, then, the natural follow-on from that is, why employ the crutch of terminology at all? Because I don't contest that its use isn't problematic, to be clear; I'd just thought it was worth it. And now I'm genuinely questioning that position.

Thinking about it, if we're addressing the reach of a particular message, we need to address translation at some point. And, surely, if the original text employs a crutch, that's carte blanche for busy translators to do the same. And, I, as the original author, have absolutely no say—let alone any meaningful context—for how most (if not all) of those stages of the promulgation will go.

And that's crucial, when you're talking about a message for the planet, about the use of half of it.

I struggle to remain positive. I really do. It's part of the reason I latch on to messages like Vettese and Pendergrass's, or David Byrne's American Utopia from a few years ago.

Part of it is survival instinct: I simply don't have the mental fortitude to go on in a meaningful way, giving my family the best of me, when my head paints the world black. I can't muster that much fight. And, increasingly, I find myself questioning whether fighting is the answer. What about the power of a better message?

I mean, to wade into—well, likely as murky water, let's talk about freedom of speech. Again, I'll lean on open minded folks like Nadine Strossen when I state that those who truly love and honour the principle demonstrate that most effectively when they champion their opponent's right to a counter-narrative. (And the right to effectively table it, I should add.)

But, right up there with that nod to the other side—or, far more likely, one of many sides—is the (not insignificant!) investment of time and energy in their own narrative; and along with that is the belief in one's peers to be able to judge those narratives accordingly. To be ignorant, maybe, but curiously—not wilfully—so, as I saw quoted on a Fediverse profile just yesterday. (Such brevity, and beauty, in that.)

I think the effort, the energy, required to maintain a space—and I leave that deliberately vague—that meets those criteria is huge. And maybe a fight is the best way to describe what is behind the continuing success of any such venture. But I prefer something that calls out the cooperation that's needed—many hands, the work they lighten, and all that—and, maybe even more importantly, the horizons we're working with in this: that is, fights are fierce, and they end. This massive experiment we call civilization will not end; or at least I hope it won't. And, yes, we could invoke the term war, then. But history—even very recent history—is littered with the folly of that. (Who amongst us thinks we wouldn't be remembered right alongside those with the hubris to tackle drugs, or terrorism, in that manner?)

So where are these spaces, then, you ask? Few and far between, in my experience. And the reasons for that are manifold, I'm sure, but I'll call out two that immediately come to mind: 1) what has been coined 'whataboutism' is certainly a factor, sapping that crucial energy from a group—when the truth is always complex; often unimaginably so—and; 2) responsibility—legal responsibility, in particular. In what are almost certainly the most divisive times of my life, you can hardly blame folks for mostly wanting to keep their heads down.

Still I see reasons for hope. Mostly in my local community, but not exclusively so. And the benefit of contributing locally is that there's more opportunity to get out of the house and speak with people, face-to-face. I'm an introvert by nature, but that doesn't mean I don't take vital energy from the socialising that I choose to do. We all need to work on nurturing that energy, within us, so we're ready to seize those moments and organise around efforts that become more than the sum of their parts.