Why language must be narrow and exclusive

A while ago I blogged about that poor women in prison forced to endure the inhumane treatment of being required to wear a bra during the day. Her situation was clearly in the same category as the woman coerced into sex slavery, raped, beaten and drugged until she delivered the necessary “services” to her customers.

So many facets of the story about the anti-bra woman bothered me, so I’ll take a look at them one by one. First, the abuse of language.

The word “cat” has a certain meaning. When I say “cat” you think of a certain type of animal with four legs, fur, and a tendency to purr. You do not think of the animal that is commonly associated with the word “dog.”

However, if I were to use the word “mammal” then your mental picture becomes far less clear. Now both cats and dogs are included in that description. And we can add to that list horses, mice and country singers.

What if we broaden it out a bit and talk about “lifeforms.” Now we can include cats, dogs, plants, fish, and if we are really generous even politicians. The broader the word, the more gets included.

But there’s a flip side to that. The more that gets included under the banner of a single word, the less descriptive the word becomes. Some words are inherently extremely narrow (such as “cat”) and it would be virtually impossible to broaden the definition, but there are other words that are taking on a surprisingly wider and wider definition with time. It’s as if we started using the word “cat” to describe animals that may or may not have four legs, may or may not have fur, and may or may not purr. Then if we are trying to talk about an actual four-legged, purring mammal then we need to qualify it by saying, for instance, “traditional cat,” or “purring cat” or something to that effect.

Now what does this have to do with the anti-bra woman? One of the things that I’ve been noticing a lot lately is the appeal to “human rights.” As I’ve noted elsewhere, this seems to be an increasingly common phrase in our vocabulary. And in this case, once again, “human rights” are apparently being violated.

I can understand the motivation to use this language, of course, because the moment you label something as a “human right” then only modern-day Neanderthals and Hitlers would dare ask the question, “is that really a human right?” How insensitive! When one person declares the something is a human right it is the duty of all civilized people to vigorously nod in agreement and join their fight. Whatever their fight might happen to be is irrelevant.

Never question!

But what happens when an ever-broadening list of issues falls under the banner of “human rights?” When more and more people will speak of these kinds of incidents as “traumatic?” Well, the more that a word describes, the less meaning the word has. What used to be “cat” has become “mammal.” And I dare say that the phrase “human rights” has almost made it’s way up the chain to being as nuanced as the word “lifeform.”

Everybody and their dog these days seems to have had this or that “human right” violated. I can’t bring my infant child into a spa; my human rights have been violated! The school that I freely chose to enroll in (knowing full well what their course requirements were) is requiring me to complete a course in French even though I am dyslexic; my human rights have been violated!

When the definition of “human rights” continues to expand ever wider with each passing week, then the phrase “human right” becomes increasingly meaningless. When every experience is described as “traumatic” then the very concept of “trauma” becomes so watered down that virtually any minor inconvenience could be described as “traumatic.” We dishonour those who have actually been raped when we start using phrases like “stare rape” to describe our discomfort with having strangers look at us.

We need language to remain exclusive. We need words to mean one thing, and to not mean something else. We need to be able to differentiate between “cat” and “dog,” between “human right” and “personal preference.” Between “trauma” and “annoyance.” But these subtleties will be increasingly lost as we continue to cry human-rights-wolf every time the world isn’t quite as we would like it to be.

And if you need a decent reference point for what real trauma looks like – an example of a true human rights violation – go back and reread Rath’s story from the introduction to Half the Sky. For Rath’s sake, and the for the sake of those in situations like hers, it is imperative that these linguistic categories remain narrow and exclusive. We dishonour them and their stories when we try to put ourselves in the same boat as them by watering down words that rightly belong, exclusively, to them.