Whenever people start to passionately argue about proper word definitions, it’s probably because somebody wants to get away with verbally hurting other people. Either that, or they are super excited about linguistics, and let’s be realistic—majority of people have no interest in philology. I say this as a person who has a master’s degree in German philology—whenever I try to tell people about how languages are really exciting, they instead find excuses how to change the conversation topic.
But what does “getting away with verbal abuse” even mean? If I dislike some person and I call them an “asshole,” I might get called out for it. Somebody can say, “This was rude and offensive, moreover, you hurt this person’s feelings.” If I wanted to emulate the typical behavior of a bigoted person, at this point I could argue that “asshole” isn’t a rude word, instead it’s a perfectly neutral description of who this person is; after all, I cannot be rude if I merely state things as they are. This is how some people try to insist that calling trans women “men in dresses” cannot be an insult, because it merely describes the reality as it is. On top of that, the person who said this transphobic phrase will argue that they aren’t even a TERF or a transphobe, instead they are “gender critical.” Just like people with racial prejudices are not racists but “race realists.” And mass murders of entire populations aren’t “genocides,” but some other euphemism du jour.
People who want to call trans women “men in dresses” know very well that these words feel like emotional violence for a trans woman. Transphobes want to call trans women “men” exactly because they know that it will hurt. Simultaneously, they also want to get away with it by proclaiming that “it wasn’t an insult, I am just stating a fact, I am just ‘gender critical.’” Just like people who use the n-word are merely “race realists.”
Back when I was a child, I was taught the word “Gypsy.” Then, at some point, I learned that Romani people do not like this word, which is considered by some Romani to be pejorative. At that point my only reaction was, “Fine, whatever you prefer,” and I switched to using the word “Romani” instead. Similarly, I won’t use the word “Negroes” when referring to people of color, because said people have clearly stated that they don’t like it.
When some group of people dislike it when you do X, why not just obey their preferences? Unless you secretly harbor some antipathy towards an entire group of people, it makes sense to just use their preferred words without making a fuss about it. A trans-accepting person will simply use male pronouns when talking about me, because I stated that I prefer to use male pronouns. When somebody instead starts arguing about which pronouns fit me better, it’s because they dislike me as a person, they want to undermine my sense of identity, they want to hurt and abuse me.
Here Hj Hornbeck wrote about violence and how to define it. What actions can or cannot be labeled with this word? When somebody promotes transphobia and tries to undermine the rights of trans people, is this violence? When somebody tries to control someone’s behavior in social networks by using their finances as leverage, can this be considered economic violence? Those are interesting questions, and I personally agree with Hj Hornbeck’s conclusions.
But why do people argue about which actions should or should not be labeled with the word “violence”? Why have the definition wars in the first place? Human languages are artificial constructs, word meanings are inherently arbitrary. The moment a group of people agrees that some sequence of sounds means something specific, then that’s what this word means. Some society can define words like “woman,” or “violence” to have any meaning they like; word meanings can be either very narrow or very broad.
For example, in English the word “abuse” has a very broad meaning. You can use the same word to say “drug abuse,” “emotional abuse,” “domestic abuse,” “verbal abuse,” “physical abuse.” In Latvian, I would have to use a different word for each of those. In my native language these is no similarly broad word with the same meaning.
Here’s another curious example. In Latvian, “violence” is translated as “vardarbība.” This is a compound word.
The word “vara” means “power” in Latvian. The English word “power” has multiple meanings (physical strength, influence, might, energy). The Latvian word “vara” is different, there is only one meaning: “possession of control, authority, or influence over others.” It can be used to talk about having legal or official authority. It can also be used to talk about, for example, a gang leader or a person who commits domestic abuse and thus has gained power over a victim who takes the beating. In Latvian, there is also a verb, derived from the same root, “varēt,” which means “to be able to do something.”
The word “darbība” means “an action” in Latvian.
This means that, etymologically, the word “vardarbība” means basically “exercising power over others without their consent.” Alternatively: “abuse of power.”
The actual meaning and everyday usage of the word “vardarbība” is pretty much identical to how the word “violence” is used in English. In Latvian, people mostly use this word to refer to physical violence, but concepts like emotional violence or economic violence are recognized.
Of course, right now I am not trying to make an argument that the etymology of some Latvian word is somehow relevant to how the word “violence” ought to be defined in English. I shared this fact, because I find it curious, that’s all. And, of course, I know that the etymology of some word is pretty much irrelevant when arguing about what it should mean nowadays. For example, did you know that the word “bank” is derived from an old word that use to mean “counter” or “bench”? In past, this word was used to refer to the moneychanger’s bench or table. (In modern German, the word “die Bank” is a homonym and has two meanings; it can mean either “bank” or “bench.”) Anyway, I’m a linguist, I find word etymologies fun.
But I do have a different point: people can decide what some word should mean. Words and concepts differ by language. Word meanings aren’t set in stone, concepts change, and word meanings can shift. For example, a century ago marriages were only between a man and a woman, they had to be church-sanctioned, and they couldn’t be terminated. Nowadays, two men can get married without getting anywhere near a church, and they can also get a divorce soon after. Alternatively, a century ago the concept of “marital rape” didn’t even exist. Societies and their values change, word meanings adapt.
Theoretically, people could collectively decide that the word “woman” means “an adult person who was assigned female at birth.” But the society can also decide that “women” are all those people who want to live and be recognized as such. The same goes for “violence,” people can decide whether some actions should or should not be considered as violence.
So why do these definition wars happen? If we, as a society, collectively agree that some behavior is “racist,” “sexist,” “transphobic,” or qualifies as “violence,” then there is an expectation that people should stop engaging in said behavior. This is why we constantly hear discussions about whether some behavior X is or is not racist. People who have certain prejudices towards people of color want to keep on practicing this behavior; therefore they so adamantly argue that said behavior cannot be labeled as racist. They want to have their cake and eat it too. On one hand, they know that people of color dislike being treated this way, therefore they want to keep up practicing some racist behavior. On the other hand, they don’t want to be criticized by other people or labeled as “racists,” therefore they so persistently argue that said behavior cannot be considered racist. Of course, the same goes also for transphobia and every other form of bigotry.
Human societies ascribe meaning to various actions. How comes that shaking some random stranger’s hand is considered appropriate while touching another person’s butt is seen as abusive? Technically, both actions are somewhat similar, because in both cases one person touches another one, it’s just that society has ascribed different meaning to both actions. Alternatively, how comes that saying some sound sequence to another person can be humiliating for them? The humiliation is not intrinsic to the act that was committed in order to humiliate some person. Rather, this act is semiotically charged by the shared attitude of all the people who are engaged in it (namely, both the victim and the bully perceive this action as humiliating). Humans invest specific words, acts, objects, or body parts with a humiliating aspect, which then can be used for abusing or controlling the victim.
If people collectively agree that throwing flower petals at somebody else is not violence, then that’s how everybody will perceive it. If we agree that throwing rotten vegetables at other people is violence, then that’s how it will be perceived. Whenever there is disagreement—namely one side says that some action is violence; while the other side says that it is not—the chances are that somebody is trying to get away with hurting other people.
At this point, my transphobic readers (I know that there are a few TERFs lurking in my blog’s comment section) probably wonder how can I justify using the word TERF. After all, people whom I call TERFs want to be called “gender critical feminists” instead. If I was willing to be kind towards Romani people or people of color or everybody who wants to use a specific pronoun, then why won’t I extend the same courtesy also towards TERFs?
I use the word “TERF,” because I have little respect for people who call themselves “gender critical feminists.” I don’t care if they dislike this label. Unlike TERFs who pretend to “merely state facts about gender and sex,” I do not try to hide my distaste for transphobes. Nor do I care about arguing whether “TERF” is or isn’t an insult. If somebody feels that I am insulting them by calling them a TERF, then I won’t bother with arguing that actually “TERF” isn’t an insult but just an accurate description of the reality. If somebody feels offended, I don’t care.
Moreover, for me “gender critical feminist” feels like a euphemism similarly to how “race realist” is also just a euphemism for “racist.” If somebody engages in bigoted behavior, I will just use words like “racist,” and “transphobic” instead of using some euphemism du jour of their choice. I have no reason to be kind towards bigots.
By the way, I have also heard a different term, namely FART (feminism-appropriating radical transphobe). In comparison, TERF isn’t even that bad.