Words That Mean Nothing

Our political discourse is dominated by issues that don’t exist

Hamilton Nolan

Other mythical creatures. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

Much of the time that we think we are talking about issues,” we are actually talking about words. One side will argue against one definition of a word, while the other side argues in favor of a different definition of a word. Each side can claim that the other is not addressing the issue, because the issue is defined differently on each side. In this way, political debate can carry on unimpeded by any barriers of mutually agreed upon terms, like separate superhighways rushing on at full speed in opposite directions. This characterizes a large amount of political discourse in this country: Torrents of people talking about different things, all of whom assume that they are talking about the same things. 

There is much hand-wringing today over the idea that misinformation and conspiracy theories and omnipresent propaganda have created a situation in which Americans don’t seem to have a single set of mutually agreed upon facts. That is true. But it does not capture an even more elementary flaw in what we are doing. We allow entire issues” to be created and to be talked about endlessly in the national political media without ever determining what those issues mean.

The absurd effect of this failure is twofold. First, it allows bad faith political actors to purposely exploit this rhetorical vulnerability in order to smear the other side by inflating the definition of bad things to include whatever the other side is doing. This is standard issue political scumbag behavior, and is to be expected. Worse, though, it creates a self-reinforcing cycle in which widespread use of some vague, ill-defined term convinces the public that this term is something important, driving media coverage and creating impenetrable towers of meaninglessness that come to dominate our partisan political landscape. 

If you can push a bullshit issue into everybody knows” territory, you can get away with never having to define it at all. What does it mean? Stupid question. Everybody knows this is an issue. 

What does cancel culture” mean? Does it mean Being fired from your job for being racist or sexist?” Does it mean Being criticized in public for saying racist or sexist things?” Does it mean Things that used to be seen as okay for white people to say now are seen as not okay and I am upset about that because I like to say those things?” It is easy to see how at one end of the spectrum of definitions, cancel culture” is an extremely narrow, niche problem without any major impact on the general public — and at the other extreme, it is a pernicious force that might come for anyone. If I were making an honest attempt to offer the definition of this term as it is most often used, it would be: People suffering consequences for things they said, with an overwhelming emphasis on the most goofy or misguided examples that we can find.” By this definition, cancel culture” is just a rebranding of the ordinary human foibles that accompany the slowly evolving standards of society. Engaging in any debate at all about cancel culture” without a meticulous definition of terms is to fall into a trap before you have even begun. 

What does woke” mean? Does it mean Aware of racism and sexism and other forms of discrimination and committed to working to eradicate them?” Does it mean Khmer Rouge-style fanatics coming to seize and indoctrinate your white babies into their vicious cult?” Its genuine operational definition is probably something like Anything that makes white people feel guilty.” It is a term that means nothing, and it is a term that can instantly serve as a slur to discredit anything — an empty bucket into which people can dump every uncomfortable thing in order to invalidate it. The fact that major media figures allow debates about wokeness” to happen with a straight face, and without a written definition, is ridiculous. It is a perfect political black hole, a magic wand that can tarnish whatever anyone dislikes and be said not to apply to anything that they like. It means everything, which means that it means nothing. 

This same dynamic applies to terms that may have once had a legitimate definition, but which become definition-less by the time they have been elevated into the popular mind, laden with propaganda. Do any of the politicians or commentators decrying critical race theory” have a precise working definition for this academic term? Of course not. It now means Anything that talks about white people’s racism.” 

And what does socialism” mean, exactly? A political scientist (or, you know, an In These Times reader) could tell you the textbook definition, but that does not matter one bit in the context of the term’s actual use in America. Here, socialism” is used as shorthand to mean anything and everything from a more democratic and egalitarian alternative economic system to capitalism” to Social Security and Medicaid” to Kim Jong Un executing his own top officials with anti-aircraft guns.” To stand up and argue Hey, many broadly popular government programs could be considered socialist…” is to miss the point that the other side is not and will never be arguing against anything that is broadly popular; they will always redraw the definition of socialism” at will to suit their purpose of making it unpopular. 

To attempt to have any kind of good faith debate on any of these topics is the political equivalent of trying to hold back an ocean wave with your hands. It’s just going to go around you. We can’t expect politicians to stop creating these sorts of terms. After all, undefined words that serve to make the other side look bad and can never be pinned down enough to make your side look like hypocrites are the pinnacle of real world political speech. What we can expect, though, is for the media not to get sucked into this stupid and meaningless game, to serve as a mechanism that reinforces the idea that unreal things are real. None of these pseudo-issues should be written about in respectable publications or spoken about on the airwaves until they have been subjected to a relentless and scrupulous defining of what they do and do not mean. I don’t care if the attempt to define woke” in a meaningful way takes the entire length of a cable news segment, leaving no time for the ensuing talking points. The fact that coming to a realistic, mutually agreed upon definition sounds so daunting and time consuming is a sign that the underlying issue” does not, necessarily, exist. 

Meanwhile, things like poverty and inequality and death and disease and climate change and war can all be easily quantified, defined and debated in a meaningful way. When someone instead spends all their time talking about things that seem undefinable, it is probably because they find reality to be an uncomfortable topic. 

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

The War on Protest Cover
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.