I feel as if I am on a linguistic treadmill that has gradually but unmistakably increased its speed, so that no word I use to positively describe myself or my scholarly projects last for more than five seconds. . . . The moment I find some symbol of my presence in the rarefied halls of elite institutions, it gets stolen, co-opted, filled with negative meaning. As integration became synonymous with assimilation into whiteness, affiramtive action became synonymous with pushing out more qualified whites, and of course multiculturalism somehow became synonymous with solipsistically monocultural privilege.Patricia J. Williams, The Rooster's Egg: On the Persistence of Prejudice 27-28 (Harvard UP 1997).
While constant rejuvenation is not just good but inevitable in some general sense, the rapid obsolescence of words even as they drop from our mouths is an increasingly isolating phenomenon. In fact, it feels like a form of verbal blockbusting. I move into a large meaningful space, with great connotations on a high floor with lots of windows, and suddenly all the neighbors move out. My intellectual aerie becomes a known hangout for dealers in heresy and other soporific drugs, frequented by suspect profiles (if not actual suspects) and located on the edge of that known geological disaster area, the Slippery Slope
This relates to something I've been thinking about for awhile, concerning the drift in meaning of certain terms or concepts related to marginalized groups and discrimination. The obvious example is the shift from Colored to Negro to Black to African-American as the polite or respectful term of reference. Each one was offered as an alternative to the stigmatized other, only to become loaded with negative valence itself and eventually be shunted aside for the next one in line. I've always thought that this maneuver illuminated a fundamental mistake in our thinking: the problem wasn't with the words, it was with the attitudes. If people have negative attitudes towards people of color, then any term that is predominantly associated with said people will progressively take on baggage. I suspect one sees a similar phenomenon with respect to concepts or strategies -- as they become associated with political action by a group we don't like, they will become coded as inappropriate, small-minded, short-sighted, radical, or otherwise illegitimate (this could explain the Washington/Du Bois double-bind I've talked about).
In any event, Williams' description of this as "verbal blockbusting" was particularly evocative, so I wanted to share (and preserve it).
* Quotes not necessarily provided daily.