Since I began my personal blog, I have had people express to me- in a variation of these words- that although they enjoyed reading my essay, they don’t agree with it 100%. I react by laughing (I laugh easily) and writing back to them that I don’t expect nor want them to agree with my essays 100%, as the writing I produce is merely a conglomeration of words that help me to formulate how I examine, experience, and explain the world around me and should never be misconstrued as absolute truth.
In the beginning of my writing journey, I didn’t put much thought into such comments. But recently, I have come to appreciate such a response to my work, because as a writer who posts content on public forms, it is important that I understand the power words hold and the connotations they convey.
Before I remark on how the stringent manner in which we relate to language impacts modern culture, I would like to briefly describe what word connotation is. Let’s start by examining these three words: economical, stingy, and frugal. These words have similar meanings, but their general connotations are different: whereas economical upholds a positive association, stingy upholds a negative, and frugal has a neutral- or at least more neutral- connotation than both economical and stingy. But, like anything that seems simple when reduced to its basic principle, understanding connotation is more complicated than placing words in the arbitrary categories of positive, neutral, or negative, as the majority of words can have several connotations depending on the context used.
Take the word cheap, a word with a similar meaning to economical, stingy, and frugal, and compare the positive sentence: Marie found a cheap coat in good condition at the local store to the negative sentence: The coats Marie found at the chain store were cheap, but already frayed to a sentence that can be positive, neutral, or negative depending on the reader’s perspective on money, economics, fashion, and labor practices: Marie found a cheap coat at Goodwill. In the third sentence especially, most readers will have varied opinions on the coat, on the extrapolated behavior surrounding the coat (such as how it was made, produced, marketed, and sold), and on Marie herself. Yet these opinions are merely based on assumptions that are heavily influenced by the past experiences of the reader alongside particular moral codes they have assimilated throughout their lives.
In our society, we are quick to make judgements with narrow information. In reading that third sentence, you can judge Marie for buying a cheap coat because you might assume it is bought from a chain store or made in a factory with unethical labor practices. Such an objective opinion is easy to make. But making a subjective opinion is harder, and often requires more information. One’s opinion on Marie might change if you found out she was poor, working two jobs, and needed to buy her child a coat for winter. Or one’s opinion of the second-hand cheap coat might change if you found out it was made in the past by a seamstress who enjoyed her job and was well paid. Or, if you are into high fashion, your opinion of the cheap coat might change if you found out that it was – remarkably so- an unworn Chanel antique.
And yet, individuals in our society (especially online) are prone to upholding these fast-made opinions with passionate vigor, aggressively berating or attacking public words and actions with little context on the subjective reality of the writers’, speakers’, or participants’ circumstances. In my case as a public writer, it’s no wonder I can spend over twenty hours diligently editing my words, yet still find that they can be offensive to many. It’s no wonder that the responses to my article about female sexuality[i] were often of opposing natures: that I was too condoning of toxic masculinity or that I was too overtaken by feminist ideology. It’s no wonder that the rise of social media, marketing slogans, and brief articles that garner views due to incisive wording have made it easy for people to both offend and be offended. It’s no wonder that, despite the fact that we can converse with those of different backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives in a capacity more immediate and available than ever before, there is an increasing tendency to see the world in polarizing terms.
In the past few months, I have come to accept that people will read my words with connotations in mind and that they will perceive my ideas in rigid terms: mainly as either too progressive or too conservative. Since I cannot have a dialogue with all my readers, I cannot discuss what parts of my work they find disagreeable. Furthermore, I cannot engage them in a conversation where viewpoints can be expressed and responded to, and not conveniently ignored or stifled by the distance of online communication or moral righteousness. I can only write, publish, and hope that people will engage with my words.
But here is a secret for my readers: I also do not agree with my words, statements, or essays 100%. How could I? Any word or sentence in my work is just a conglomeration of the entire piece, a piece that can only address a small amount of the cultural atmosphere I am writing about given my limited experience and the contained space and time I have to express myself. Moreover, the words I use will not always be adequate for what I am trying to impart. For example, when I wrote disagreeable in the paragraph above, I didn’t intend to use the pejorative meaning of the word. What I intended by that sentence was: the parts of my work they don’t agree with. And it’s valid to counteract that the definition of disagreeable is not not agreeable. But the truth is, what I enjoy most about the art of writing is playing around with words and generating writing that is semantically pleasing, despite the fact that the connotation or meaning might be inappropriate. (Of course, in these essays I do place more emphasis on the meaning and overtone of the words I use rather than the semantical structure of the entire piece. And- in all honestly- I likely wouldn’t have kept the word disagreeable above if I didn’t use it to make a point about the discrepancy amongst word connotation, meaning, and semantic structure.)
But, to come back to my point, my words and opinions are just my words and opinions. I don’t see them as preeminent or as something that should be universally accepted by my readers or even by myself in the next hour. And the most important thing for me is not that my readers agree with me, but that they engage with my extrapolated observations of the world and use that to consider their own preconceived biases and notions.
It’s a difficult aim, as the people that are given the voice to express their opinions often do consider morality to be objective, words to be absolute, and their moral framework to be just and correct. Moreover, many of those who do choose to make their words public do so in order to make others follow their own vision of what they want the world to be. This conditions us to classify those with a public presence as dogmatic ideologues. Moreover (since these dogmatic ideologues often set the example of what is right or wrong), such individuals help make the world develop into a right-wrong polarity where our own beliefs are seen as righteous and opposing beliefs are seen as the opposite of righteous; and in this two-sided structure the words that are used to express these beliefs become an all-encompassing pansophy.
But it’s important to remember that opinions are not so rigid.
And neither are the meaning of words.
As even my words and opinions on the fluidity of words and opinions cannot be taken so rigidly.