Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It's Never JUST Semantics

Have you ever found yourself in an argument and had someone say, "Now, we're just arguing semantics!" It always sounds so dismissive, like semantics shouldn't matter.

Right, and that's why this white girl won't use the "n" word on her blog.

It's just the semantics.

Yes, there is a strong argument that we, as society, assign meanings to strings of letters called "words" in an arbitrary manner.

That doesn’t mean that those "arbitrary" meanings don't matter.

Semantics is the study of meanings as they are addressed to words. There's a reason we've assigned different meanings to different strings of letters; those meanings – well, they mean something. If there wasn't a difference in significance, we wouldn't have chosen, in our respective cultures, to create different symbols for those different definitions.

I got into an argument with a friend about semantics yesterday (yesterday in respect to when I wrote this blog, but I know I'll still be smoldering about it when I publish this) (Edit to add: Ok, not smoldering, but still bothered). I won't go into details, but this friend didn't understand why I was getting upset about a point he was making. In retrospect, we probably agreed on the same point, but his word choice conveyed an entirely different meaning for me – a meaning specific to the social, political, and cultural language of the conversation. It was one of those ridiculously stupid arguments, but it was the topic of cultural history and accuracy, which is something I get passionate about.

Why are semantics so important to me? And why shouldn't they be dismissed in an argument?

Another topic that will get me into a passionate frenzy is this one: Two people of the same sex are in love, have chosen to be devoted to each other for their entire lives and exchanged vows of this dedication; if their governing state does not recognize this union and affix the "correct" term to this relationship, it is devastating. One of those partners or spouses may not receive necessary medical care, the other may not even be able to be present if their beloved is dying.

Marriage, civil union, illegal. Different words applied to the same situation. Different meanings. Just semantics, right?

It's absolutely semantics. And it matters.

Semantics can deny a group of people their culture, their history, their reality, their rights – their very lives!

Words are a powerful weapon, and as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, "With great power comes great responsibility."

Use your words responsibly, and respect the damage you can do with them.


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