A Vocabularic Hegemony: Privilege, Statist, Coercion, and the Forced Dilution of Powerful Words
If you’re younger it’s possible you’ve not come across it, but hegemony is what occurs when one country rules another indirectly, usually by a proxy or puppet government. Because “indirect control” is a somewhat nebulous qualifier, when I was in college during the Cold War there was often disagreement what was and wasn’t hegemony. Some (read: conservatives) argued that the USSR’s hold on Czechoslovakia was a prime hegemony; others (read: liberals) argued the United States’ influence on NATO was the most obvious example.
You might have noticed that our decade-long occupation/friendly visit in Iraq was almost never described as hegemony, despite the fact that the word was as perfect a descriptor as one might imagine. But you never really heard anyone say this, because we don’t use the word hegemony any longer. Hegemonies still exist, of course, and the need to discuss and analyze them and their effects in a post-9/11 world is more important than ever. But the word hegemony has been pretty much universally discarded. (Excepting, perhaps, in the more archaic offices of academia, current versions of the CPUSA, and probably CK McLeod). And there is a reason this perfectly good and useful word is now essentially dead: we liberals killed it back in the 1980s.
At some point (I have no exactly idea when), it became fashionable to attach the concept of hegemony to non-geopolitical issues. If gender studies was your thing, for example, you might argue that the indirect control of men over culture made the latest blockbuster movie a sign of hegemony. If you were pro-union, the inability to get large-employer low-wage workers to strike was in part because of business owners’ indirect control of the entire system, and so McDonalds was an example of hegemony. Pick a liberal cause of the 1980s, and regardless of how mainstream or how fringe, people were making arguments for it centered on the concept of hegemony.
Over time, it became less and less necessary to craft an argument for why something was hegemony; simply stating that it was so was good enough for the faithful. In a surprisingly short period of time, the word came to be a tribal marker. It was used more to show others that you were using it, and less to communicate anything of substance. Eventually, it ceased to have anything to do with proxy governments, and instead became a liberal synonym for “bad” or “other.” And then it became tiresome, as all slang does, and then it became something of a joke, and then people stopped using it altogether. And now it mainly just sits in dictionaries, gathering dust.
Earlier today I wrote a post about Dick Cheney as an example of Dick-ish privilege. The point of the post was that it was incumbent upon those in the majority to develop a better sense of empathy for those in the minority. For the most part, however, the threads there wondered about my saying this:
I’ve noted before that I’m not overly fond of the word “privilege” being used in political discussions these days. It’s a fine word, mind you, and it can be quite relevant. But it’s overused, a lot of people use it incorrectly, and too often it’s simply bandied about as a substitute for actual engagement. Privilege, in my opinion, has become the liberal’s version of the conservative’s “statist” and the libertarian’s “coerced.”
I had thought this was clearer than it obviously was, so I thought I’d take a minute and explain what I meant.
As I’ve discussed before, in this Age of Intertubes we are more and more shutting ourselves off from those that think differently than ourselves. There are many negative consequences to this. One of those consequences is that words that are embraced by a political group or movement are rapidly going through a process similar to hegemony.
I’m sure, for example, that there was a time before I read blogs when people arguing using the word “statist” had something important to tell me. Those days appear to be long gone, however. In fact, in the two years I’ve been writing here, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone make a coherent argument using the word “statist.” I don’t even think I’ve seen anyone make one that’s incoherent. Rather, it is trotted out and plopped down, as if there is nothing more is needed than the utterance of the word. “Because: statist” is invariably the answer I get when I ask for clarification or point out a flaw I see on a position using that word.
Does this mean that the word “statist” itself is a flawed word, or that there isn’t a great argument to be made about why a policy or program being statist is its fatal flaw? Of course not, and I’m sure that there is. But at this point, statist has become for movement conservatives of this generation what hegemony was for liberals of mine. It’s a marker meant to designate tribe, and little else. They’re quite a ways behind, but l believe libertarians are about to run into the same problem with “coercion.” The argument “because it’s coercion” is really the same as “because it’s statist” or “because its hegemony.”
Meanwhile, I sense that liberals have circled all the way back on the word “privilege,” and this makes me sad. The word privilege has teeth; the word privilege has power. Right now, it means something. But if I’m being honest, it means less today than it did two years ago, when I began blogging. And if we keep using it in knee jerk ways to declare who is and who isn’t One Of Us, it will soon be reduced to the watered-down impact of “coercion.” And shortly thereafter it will be a joke like “statist.” And then it will go the way of hegemony, and we’ll have to explain to the next generation why you can’t use privilege-the-word any longer and still be taken seriously, despite the fact that privilege-the-issue is still an ongoing issue. That’s the price you pay these days when you dilute words these days.
You’d think the magic continued within powerful words is infinite, but this just isn’t so.