Countering Semantic Poison

by | Aug 6, 2019 | CNF, Issue Ten

“… nothing in the world … has as much power as a word.” Emily Dickinson

Once upon turbid waters, the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, Ohio, and moms—mine and many others—believed Lake Erie into which the river oozed during the 1950s was a source of polio. These days, some swear atmospheric carbon overload is BS, and global warming is a “chinki” plot. One might react to such notions by railing against ethnic or climatological ignorance, but Shakespeare demonstrated a knack for superior wit and syntax in a heavenly quip from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “My soul is in the sky.” The bard didn’t have climate change in mind, but his choice of words shows how it is possible to elevate thinking, or at least the tone of dialogue.

In everyday life, fiery interactions among friends and family members are frequently fueled by linguistic choices and interpretations of meaning. We think. We believe. Moreover, we think what we believe with conviction is true, but often in the heat of the moment fail to consider underlying currents channeling how an expression is phrased and received. Rapid-fire rejoinders do not generally arise from a foundation of verifiable evidence.

One person’s personal or political truth differs from another’s, and we all tend toward bias when emotionally aroused. So what are some alternatives to venting verbal venom as a countermeasure when confronted with conversational caca? Are there helpful ground rules or examples?

A case can be made that at least three words in the English language should not be used at all in civil discourse among kith and kin, let alone strangers: the “N” word, the “C” word, and the “F” word for fag. Of course they are used with sundry justifications conjuring cultural, creative, comic, or constitutional rights. But regardless of partisan persuasion, wit, or lack thereof, “… right and wrong are fuzzy concepts,” as Isaac Asimov observed. Less ambiguous are the advantages of minding one’s words and weighing their implications. A sense of humor bolstered by willingness to tolerate some ambiguity or irony doesn’t hurt either, but we adore rationalization when indulging rhetorical biases.

 “ … Hamlet … never once doubts the reality of the ghost,” D. F. Wallace remarked. Many souls drifting among us today do not doubt the validity of bogus issues, such as a conspiratorial prohibition by the left against wishing someone a merry Christmas, or the perception of near-universal anti-intellectualism and racism among conservatives. Both camps are guilty of confirmation bias, and plenty of kindred ethers cloaked in conceptual certitude haunt the drafty corridors of many a settled mind.

The issue isn’t so much good cop versus bad or right versus wrong but, rather, some forethought regarding decency in expression. In matters of contempt versus civility, examples abound in literature and related arts and sciences that transcend—or at least pre-date—the manufactured problem of political correctness much in the manufactured news of our ostensibly “post-truth” era.

Let’s play a game and turn base expressions, or churlish or insupportable ones, around. The following table offers examples of verbal or tacit alternatives to conversational incivility. Sources for the entries—droll to sober—range from Aristotle’s musings to Margaret Mitchell’s cultural commentary in Gone With the Wind. Like coupling Shakespeare’s soul-in-the-sky with our contemporary concept of climate change, some observations in a given column were not offered to address concepts in the adjacent column; nevertheless, creative pairings may suggest novel, even superior, interpretations of ancient or contemporary epigrams. Are all expressions on the left toxic and everything on the right curative? Hardly, depending on context. Are some suggestions gallingly cerebral and others too telegraphic adequately to address nuance? Certainly, but semantics on any level, earthly or celestial, can be entertaining.

At least one individual I know believes guardian angels sporting fluffy, feathered wings flit and flirt among us, and that finding a feather proves an angel is nearby. Nietzsche wrote, “There are various truths, and as a result there is no truth.” Well, yes and no, but even the most peevish provocation can be turned on its head with a few, well-chosen words.

Alternatives to Poison

Darker conceitBrighter interpretation
Ni**er!Barbaric yawp (W. Whitman)
FeminaziIf the word [concept] doesn’t exist, invent it (Baudelaire)
C*ntGentlemen do not like forward girls (M. Mitchell)
All fags are sure to go to hellAbhorred Styx, the flood of deadly hate (J. Milton)
Wingnut, redneck, libtard, wacko, nutjob, moonbat, snowflake, thug, trollIf you can’t answer a man’s arguments … you can still call him a vile name (Elbert Hubbard)
Mine is the one and only true GodMan…makes gods by the dozen (De Montaigne, Essays)
My beliefs and absolute truth are oneGod and the imagination are one (Wallace Stevens)
The only true faith is blind faithReality can be beaten with enough imagination (Twain)
Intelligent design and creationismIf facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts (Einstein)
Welfare is sucking the economy dryI was hungry and you gave me food (Matthew 25:35)
I support the disenfranchisedLove the poor? Name them. (Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez)
Perfectionism is analGod is in the details (Mies van der Rohe)
Alternative factsEmpirical (per Merriam-Webster dictionary) evidence
(Pseudo) Science
The unfalsifiable; “proving” the null hypothesisStatistical uncertainty and certainty (in all science)
Anybody can write anything nowadaysPeer-reviewed articles (e.g., Nature, Science, JAMA)
Anybody can say or argue anything nowadaysThe Baloney Detection Kit (Carl Sagan)
Everything is a choice arising from free willHumans = 100% nature + 100% nurture (D. Hebb)
post hoc ergo propter hocCorrelation does not imply causation (logic)
We know so much nowMultiverses, dark matter, dark energy (astrophysics)
Comic Relief
Excessive cleavage or plumber crackEveryone likes to look down on someone (B. Weeks)
I’ll bet you anything that …Materialists and madmen never have doubts (G.K. Chesterton)
Social and Cultural Propositions
Determine never to be idle (Thomas Jefferson)In Praise of Idleness & Other Essays (Bertrand Russell)
There is nothing better than hard workLife must be lived as play (Plato, F. Schiller) 
Wisdom of the common manThe best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter (Churchill)
Argumentum ad hominemCritical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking (R. W. Paul)
Bookstores are obsoleteFiction is a necessity (on literature, C.K. Chesterton)
Hate-talk radio and Internet bunkWe shall meet in the place where there is no darkness (G. Orwell)
“No, you’re the hypocrite,” said the hypocriteThe psychology of projection (Freud and company)
Cyber thoughts and prayersThe Internet can make you stupid (N. Carr)
Ad saturation and rampant commercialismAsk yourself: is this useful? (Minimalism: A documentary film)
Nonstop warfare against (anything)An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind (Gandhi)
USA, USA, USA!Nationalism has a way of oppressing others (Chomsky)
Hell of urban living (if rural) Perks of urban living (if urban)
Hell of living rural (if urban) Perks of living rural (if rural)
You can never have too much moneyFor the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:1 KJV)
Some people don’t deserve any moneyThe lack of money is the root of all evil (Mark Twain)
MoneyEverything popular is wrong (Oscar Wilde)
Sure, I do that, but it’s not really meWe are what we repeatedly do (Aristotle)


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