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"Dangerous" Is the New "Problematic"
Is Pepe the Frog really more dangerous than necrophilia?
Ever since first engaging with politics, I have been fascinated with how language shapes the tone of political conversation. Pro-life and pro-choice imply the existence of pro-death and anti-choice stances respectively, despite neither being a term with which anyone would willingly associate. Gun control on the other hand is far less divisive. With control being such an ambidextrous term, neither side of the debate objects, as it is somehow simultaneously less dictatorial than “gun ban”, yet more ominous than “gun laws”. The former fact pleasing to the political left, and the latter pleasing to the right. Author and essayist George Orwell observed these sorts of phenomenons in one of my favourite essays of all time..:
English flower names which were in use till very recently are being ousted by Greek ones, snapdragon becoming antirrhinum, forget-me-not becoming myosotis, etc. It is hard to see any practical reason for this change of fashion: it is probably due to an instinctive turning-away from the more homely word and a vague feeling that the Greek word is scientific.
Politics and the English Language
Fundamentally, the tone of political language exerts more force than its actual meaning. “Western” sounds more understanding than white, and “affirmative” comes across as cosier than discriminatory. “Peacekeepers” soothe where invaders aggravate, and we’d all rather live in a society that “de-platforms” rather than censors. At our most verbose, to “no longer stand by and do nothing” functions as the pundit’s longhand for war. Take, for example, problematic.
Like a Pokémon of rhetoric, problematic evolved from offensive.
Problematic once described that which constituted a problem to someone or something else. Aluminium is problematic for microwave ovens. Chastity is problematic for the French. In time, however, problematic adopted an informal, secondary definition. This other use translates to something like “transgressive to my ideology”, though none would admit this. Consider the following statements.
James Bond is offensive.
James Bond is problematic.
Today, these two declarations are functionally identical. Crucially, however, the term offensive has begun to sound a little too much like a “you problem”, whereas problematic provides the useful connotation of objectivity. When we gut a word of its original meaning, the word’s utility subsists only on the echoes of its final, fading vibrations. Therefore, it is never long before we must pluck another unsuspecting word from the vine to eviscerate. It happened to problematic.
And now it’s happening to dangerous.
Let’s pause for just a moment and bring Chief Twit himself, Elon Musk, into the conversation. Elon Musk has graced the list of real-life Hollywood villains ever since he announced his plan to microchip the global population. In the running of most terrifying and dystopian film premises, neural interface with computers is up there with the resurrection of extinct animals for a prehistoric theme park. When this technology sees widespread adoption, I will happily live amongst the other savages.
All that said, Musk’s acquisition of Twitter – and the political language employed against him – serve as a topical example of the behaviour described above. Just type the word dangerous into Twitter itself to see how it is used. An example.
This gentleman, possibly unfamiliar with the mechanics of humour, assigns the dangerous label to “lies floated as jokes”. He also assigns it to “ad hominem attacks”, a six-syllable conglomerate used to say “insults”. Finally, he assigns the scarlet letter of dangerous to “blatant misinformation”, implying that somewhere there exists a purveyor of truth to which we can all commit ourselves unquestioningly.
Taken at face value, it all sounds rather awful. These remarks portray Twitter as a sort of fallen angel in the digital space, a pure and innocent creature defiled by one of the richest men in the world. It stands to reason that if the “this” referred to isn’t “freedom of speech”, but is instead “dangerous”, then whatever previously wasn’t “freedom of speech” was not “dangerous”. Fortunately, this theory is simple to test via a brief glance at Twitter’s own history, for it was the old Twitter that was sued for refusing to take down child sexual abuse material. It was the old Twitter that shortly afterwards got in trouble for playing paid advertisements next to such horrific media.
Was none of that “dangerous”?
A second and final example.
Once again, “dangerous” has been invoked, this time preceding “right-wing troll”. A curious choice. After all, if advertisers can stomach association with child sexual abuse material, they can probably stomach Pepe the Frog. This inexplicable hypocrisy calls to mind a debacle involving the website Reddit back in 2015. Under new leadership, Reddit made sweeping removals of uncouth forums, including the likes of “Fat People Hate”, a forum for the mockery of the obese. It was perhaps a needlessly censorious move, but not one that defied logic. Since content moderation has no logical or natural endpoint, subjectivity is inherent to the process. What was less logical, however, was not what they did ban, but what they did not.
Every parent has their favourites, after all.
In that infamous season of censorship, the administrators of Reddit chose not to eject the forum “Cute Female Corpses” from its midsts. That forum, a forum that needs no explanation beyond its title, was left to prosper for years afterwards. Only in the mind of the ideologically deranged does the physical exploitation of children and the eroticisation of the mutilated bodies of dead loved ones warrant lesser concern than fat jokes and crude drawings of a green, humanoid frog huffing from a helium tank labelled “memes”. Whatever far-reaching and sinister underbellies those things could be argued to represent, they pale in comparison to the real and present dangers implicitly condoned by these platforms every day.
But why dangerous?
The term dangerous evades explanation through its own sense of urgency. In real life, when a friend warns us that something is dangerous, it’s not an invitation for a philosophical debate. When such language enters the political sphere, it reeks of the “follow the science” chant. Questions are not welcome. The nature of the threat is so existential that to explain it to the common folk would be a gross misuse of time. Dangerous, much like problematic, invites a sense of objectivity, then further imbues it with imminent peril.
Social media further enforces alarmist language. This is true of pundits from all political corners. Truth is useless. It is not about what we say, but how we say it. Social media demotes truth to hearsay and commodifies the reaction to it. This is as annoying as it is inevitable, but when we deploy this sleight-of-mouth for ideological reasons, that can truly be dangerous. When ideology trumps commonly agreed-upon morality, it sucks the oxygen out of the room for everything else. After all, how much time wasted debating whether the “OK” hand gesture qualified as a hate symbol, could have been better spent demanding the investigation and prosecution of Jeffrey Epstein’s client list? But alas, that would be a non-partisan assault, given the presence of both surnames like Trump as well as Clinton on said list. As they say, that which is political, bipartisan, and criminal to the naked eye, is that which seems to stupefy official scrutiny most easily.
So what comes after dangerous?
It could be that the sequel is out already and fast making its money back, but is yet to take hold as the dominant form of condemnation. With the trend firmly established at this point, we might already guess the successor – “violent”. The term violent carries the objectivity and immediacy of its predecessors, but adds in the impossibly visceral and unmistakably malevolent.
However, we only get here through the gentle but relentless erosion of meaning. Had we declared several decades ago that “words are violence”, we would have been called mad. The old sticks-and-stones adage would have refuted the thought automatically. In time however, we have collectively sleepwalked towards absurdity until we are so close, until it obscures our vision so completely, that we can no longer see it for the absurdity that it is. With our peripheral vision completely ensconced, any sense of perspective falls away.
The absurdity is the reality.
If politics is war, then words are not the weapons, words are the battlefield – a battlefield that shifts beneath the soldiers’ feet. This is not to endorse one side or the other, but to advocate for clarity itself. Neighbour must comprehend neighbour. Without the words with which to even define the front line, when reality can no longer be commonly defined, we lose all capacity for constructive conversation. If we cannot resolve conflict with words, we regress to more primal instincts – and those sticks and stones will break our bones.
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