Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz


It started way back in the eighties, with the Stay Free maxi-pads. At least, that’s what they said on this TV documentary I saw once. How could you tell people to protect their freedom when they thought you were talking about feminine hygiene products? I mean, you still had the words, of course, it wasn’t Orwellian or anything, they didn’t take away the words, they just “added” new meanings to them. Particular kinds of meanings. And who really wanted to use them after that? It made the whole idea of freedom seem kind of dirty.

We don’t have freedom either, of course. Freedom lasted a little longer, before finally dying out in the late nineties when the name was taken by that pornography download software. I mean, try telling some guy in the street you’re just trying to protect your freedom. I’ve tried! He laughs and then he makes some sort of obscene sexual pantomime. Makes it kind of hard to be an activist.

Activist took a little longer. Companies bought out the core concepts before they moved to the little stuff like us activists. Activist was what they called it when they privatized the sewer system in the late 2000s. “Activists are shit,” you used to hear the right-wingers say. Now they don’t even need to say it — it’s in the dictionary.

So when I recruit kids I can’t tell them what they’d be. Saying they’d be activists is straight out, obviously. But I can’t even tell them we do protests. Protest is what they call it when you call AAA when your car breaks down. Kids don’t want to go around fixing broken cars. They’re not big on protests.

Liberty quickly became the leading brand of thong underwear. Control is the #2 online role-playing game. Rights are the new name for gift certificates. Democracy is the kind of M&Ms where you get to pick the color. (“Geez man, we all like chocolate, but you’re taking things a bit too far,” is what the kids say when I tell them we need to fight to protect democracy.)

It’s like a nightmare version of Intelligence (or, as it used to be called, Wheel of Fortune). They bought up all my words.

You should follow me on twitter here.

March 25, 2007


Words can have multiple meanings. It’s OK. There’s no crime in that. New uses of a word don’t detract from old uses.

posted by ThomasW on March 25, 2007 #

Re “Newspeak,” see “Compassionate Commercialism” in today’s New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/opinion/25gilbert.html

posted by John S James on March 25, 2007 #

// Words can have multiple meanings. It’s OK. // There’s no crime in that. New uses of a word // don’t detract from old uses.

But they do detract from old uses. When the “new” common definition replaces the old, you lose control of your own language. You lose a bit of capacity for communication. You lose control of your own argument. Outside of physical or legal suppression, is there anything more demeaning to a community?

posted by yatta on March 26, 2007 #

Surely meaning is nothing more than a social contract? It’s only a set of agreed rules controlled implicitly by usage, and usage of language is carried out by community and society. It’s a collective activity. Thus if the will of the community is to change the meaning of a word, then the members have to keep up with it, or work to maintain the canonical status of their meaning. Only way I can see round this is if “valuable” meanings are lost - but if they’re not the ones the majority of people want, then we have to have rules about who in which minorities should be able or allowed to define value of meaning, and it seems like we’re on the slippery slope to technocracy. Which isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but which is quite hard to defend ethically in the context of the current libertarian and individualist climate.

posted by Igor Clark on March 26, 2007 #

yatta: When I read your response, I immediately recalled the previous discussion about whether it was okay to start a sentence with “Me and others…” Losing control of the language, me am. ;-)

posted by Mike Sierra on March 26, 2007 #

Hi! I was stuck here on the freeway doing some Protesting (this new SaudiFund I’m driving is a real lemon) when I decided do do some mobile browsing. I had some stale Democracy to munch on, and figured I’d just enjoy a little Freedom ‘til the tow truck got here. I happened to notice this little piece in another window. Very funny! Ooops, gotta go — this Democracy is giving me Activism, and I see some bushes over there where I can doff my Liberty. If only I had some TP… ah! these Rights should do nicely! War-out, my bruthas.

posted by Gordon McNutt on March 26, 2007 #

Assume for a moment that there’s an alternate set of words for the set of concepts you want to communicate, words that everybody understands and that haven’t yet been polluted with alternate meanings or dismissive irony. Is there any good reason to assume you’ll have that much more success in getting people to be “activists” or to engage in “protest” on behalf of your vision of “freedom”? My gut tells me the problem goes a lot deeper than mere words.

posted by Mike Sierra on March 26, 2007 #

heh… “privatize” the sewers!

posted by bub4280 on May 8, 2007 #

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