Accommodating to Connotation

Since the discussion about the word “shallow” and such with my last post, I have had a couple of discussions with people about the pragmatism of bowing to popular connotations of words.  Essentially, I’m being too literal and not understanding that some words simply have connotations that color them, I’m being told.  Therefore, if I choose to ignore those popular connotations I will invite mis-communication.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

While I can point back to what a word really means, according to a dictionary or a philosophical tradition (for example), having a reasonable explanation for ignoring commonly used connotations of a word is not going to help when I inadvertently offend or confuse someone such that they ignore any more that I have to say out of annoyance.  After all, as Wittgenstein said, it is the use of a term that really provides the context for meaning.

This problem of  word connotation, use, and definition is actually a problem that atheists have in general, as the term “atheist” is (mis)understood by many to mean something other than how I and the vast majority of the atheist community uses it.

And because of the misunderstanding of this term in our culture (and the world), atheists have had to re-educate people to a different usage.  That is, the common usage by many people was simply wrong.  It didn’t matter that it came to mean Satan-worshiper, immoral heathen, or person who says there absolutely is no god.  What mattered was that when actual atheists came out of the closet, they didn’t fit into these definitions.  When the term is analyzed in context to the relevant philosophical questions, the use that makes sense is “lacks belief in any gods.”  Connotations be damned!

Shaming and depth-evaluation

So, when Greta Christina started defending fashion (I know, I’m writing about it again!) as not being shallow (also not vain or trivial), she was defending it against the negative connotations of the word.  She was shallow-shaming.  She was not only saying that fashion is not shallow, but if it were, then it would probably be a bad thing.  So when someone called her out on this, saying that fashion does seem to fit the criteria as being shallow, she reacted as if they had claimed that a thing she cared about was stupid, not deserving of attention, etc.  But what was really happening was a re-evaluation of the term shallow, and our orientation towards how we think about having shallow interests.

Much of our culture and the daily lives we live are shallow.  Further, much of it is primarily and overwhelmingly shallow.  Many of us like our home sports team to win, the physical appearance of our lovers, and that our political candidates appear to be saying something important.  The surface-level part of the majority of our existence is, well, superficial and quite distracting from what lies (clever pun intended) underneath .

But there is depth under those things, and many people appreciate that too.  The relative level of how much we care about one or the other is the criteria, I believe, by which we should judge a person, and not whether they actually like anything that does not dig very deep at any point.  Like fashion.  I will not hold anyone to the standard of never being irrational, never liking anything primarily shallow, or generally not living up to whatever standards we impose upon them.  So, appreciate fashion and baseball if you like, but stop pretending that these things are not shallow and trivial.

Standing up to Connotations

Connotations certainly shift word-usage over time.  The question is to what extent it is legitimate to stop, once in a while, and say “wait, I think that the connotation which has built up around this word is philosophically problematic and has implications which you may not be aware of.”  Or you might say something less complicated, if you are not me.

But at bottom it is sometimes useful to recognize that we may be demonizing a term (like “shallow” or “slut”), artificially heightening it (like “faith”), or even unnecessarily moderating it (like “accommodationist”).  Sometimes the connotations of words are not valid, if considered carefully.  Sometimes we need to step up and declare that the way our culture, or a segment of it, uses a word is simply problematic or wrong.

There is nothing inherently wrong with liking shallow pursuits, being a slut, or being an atheist.  There is nothing inherently good about having faith, and we should not give that term the free pass it usually gets in our culture.  And we should not consider accommodationists (those nice atheists who defend religion and apologize for us mean atheists) as being the wise, moderate, and fair critics they think of themselves as; sometimes a thing is just wrong, and there is nothing wrong with pointing that out.

So, yes, fashion is shallow and I’m pointing that out.  Like fashion, do you? I don’t care, nor will I judge you as a bad person based solely on that fact.  Only like things like fashion, weight lifting, pop music, sports, and interior design?  Well….