Like me, Arkansas’ former U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder is concerned that some words have been shunted from their primary meanings. Regarding “elite” or “elites,” Snyder said in an email to me last week, “I fear we’ve taken a word that used to mean top-notch, like an elite military unit, and turned it into a term of denigration.”
He’s not wrong; considering his Marine Corps past, I think he knows just what the word should mean. Plus, he’s honest, a genuinely nice guy and one of the last actual public servants, so I think I’ll trust him.
It hasn’t been just on one side, either. As Snyder told me, “It was a word clearly abused in a bipartisan manner.”
“Elite” since the 18th century has meant “the best,” or as Oxford defines it, “a select part of a group that is superior to the rest in terms of ability or qualities.” Think Navy SEALs or Army Rangers, for instance. Now, however, a mid-20th century secondary meaning has crowded out the first definition in favor of one that more accurately describes “elitist” (one who believes he is superior to others and thus entitled, or who believes in government by the few), not the “elite.” “Elite” is a status, “elitism” is an attitude, and someone can be a member of the elite without being an elitist.
“Elite” is far from the only word that, in the political realm, has become a dirty word. “Fact,” especially as it relates to fact-checking, has come to mean whatever you believe to be true … whether it actually is or not. “Mainstream,” once thought of as being the prevailing current of thought, has now come to mean liberal and biased. “Liberal,” of course, now means just about anything bad rather than “tending in favor of freedom and democracy,” per the Online Etymology Dictionary. “Patriot” no longer means “fellow countryman,” but someone who single-mindedly (even fanatically) wants to defend his rights, especially against a government that he believes abandoned him, despite any evidence to the contrary.
And yep, even “moderate”—which describes most people, considering the growth of those identifying as independent—has devolved to mean “wishy-washy.” Most moderates I know would say no, a moderate considers both sides and deliberates carefully before choosing the path to follow. Being cautious and open-minded about serious matters isn’t a bad thing.
Well, unless ideologues say it is. Then being measured in your approach to things is just proof of your deep bias. (OK, so we moderates are deeply biased … against extremes on either side that can easily turn dangerous. We’re crazy that way.)
In discussing the pejorative nature of some political labels, Snow College English/education Professor Roger Baker wrote in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News in 1994: “It may be that every word really has two meanings. One meaning is the denotation and carries no emotion. The other meaning is the connotation and carries the feeling. It is the connotation that charges a perfectly good word with invective, or spite, or envy, or affection and romance. This is why GM, Ford, and Chrysler don’t just sell ‘cars.’ They use names that carry emotion and sell Cougars, Cadillacs and Stealths. These words are labels designed to make us feel.”
That’s sort of the point. We’ve taken to ignoring the denotation and placing all faith in the connotation; emotion thus carries the most weight. (I’m getting so many feels!!! Perhaps because “feels” is not a noun …)
“Politician,” for example, primarily means “one actively engaged in conducting the business of a government,” according to Webster—a non-emotional definition. It’s more often used now to mean a scheming someone more interested in his own well-being over others, and who delights in the machinations of modern politics. Not exactly unemotional there … and also quite broad if you think about it.
Hmmm … seems a certain tweeter-in-chief (don’t get me started) would qualify, especially on that first point.
One of the saddest examples of mis-definition I see far too often is “compromise.” Back in 1850, U.S. Sen. Henry Clay said that life itself is a compromise, noting: “All legislation, all government, all society is formed upon the principle of mutual concession, politeness, comity, courtesy; upon these, everything is based. I bow to you today because you bow to me. You are respectful to me because I am respectful to you.”
But now, giving any ground is seen as sacrilege by the hyper-partisan; it must be all or nothing. Except that’s not how life works—at least not when you want society to work—and there’s that whole “tyranny of the majority” thing to consider (Something quite a few people need to read up on tout de suite).
And mutual respect? Overrated. It’s far more fun to treat everyone like dirt, then expect them to respect you for it. So I guess my mama was wrong in saying I should treat people as I want to be treated. Dang it.
Compromise is not a dirty word, nor is elite or many of the other words that have become so ingrained in our hurled political epithets (and “epithet” is another word that has morphed into a pejorative). So what can we do?
Stop being so prone to taking offense at every little thing. Read only what’s in front of you rather than what your biases (we all have them) tell you is there. Be inquisitive and seek voices outside your bubble. Be skeptical and seek actual truth (not just what your favorite source tells you is true … it might not be). Stop projecting your own fears and weaknesses onto anyone with whom you disagree.
And please, calm down. I’m pretty sure the sun will come up tomorrow if you take words like “elite” at face value.
If it doesn’t, rest assured I’ll admit I was wrong. But I’m not worried …