When you repeat a word or a phrase enough times, its meaning changes.
Sometimes, it becomes less powerful — like “awesome” — and loses impact completely; very few of the things we call “awesome” actually measure up to the definition. Other times, overuse of a word — like “literally” — changes the meaning entirely. By definition, the word “literally” is the opposite of “figuratively,” but the two are now used interchangeably.
Language is like that; it evolves and morphs and bends. Words that one day we thought were acceptable suddenly aren’t the next. Earlier this week, I finished reading “The Nightingale,” an excellent historical fiction novel about two sisters surviving in Occupied France during World War II. The book was beautifully written and went into the fine details of what it was like to be both part of the resistance and a regular person trying to survive food rationing and seeing your friends and neighbors deported to camps. It was heartbreaking and redeeming and illustrated humanity’s infinite capacity for both cruelty and love. It also underscored something that we’ve come to take for granted: Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were pure evil.
We use the words “Nazi” and “Hitler” too casually these days. Unless we recently visited a Holocaust museum or read a book or watched a movie on the subject, we don’t actually think about the meaning of those words. We don’t think about being forced into a boxcar for three days without food or water. We don’t think of being starved to death. We don’t think of entering a room for a shower and instead being gassed. We don’t think of using the most advanced technology in the world to systematically coordinate the logistics of hunting, capturing, transporting and murdering as many Jews, Gypsies, gays, Communists, disabled and dissenting people that one can get their hands on.
When Mel Brooks joked about making a musical called “Springtime for Hitler” in “The Producers,” or when “Seinfeld” had its shtick about the Soup Nazi, it was funny because it was in such stark contrast to the seriousness of what the Nazis had done. But in 2018, when we casually compare any Type-A authority figure to Hitler, or anyone who doesn’t agree with us to a Nazi, we are making those words banal.
Evil should never be banal. It should be feared and fought. It should be satirized to undermine its power. Jokingly calling your fitness instructor a “Nazi,” because he or she expects discipline, neuters the word. When actual white supremacists are marching in our streets, it’s important that words like “Nazi” are powerful and available to brand the ugliness with the disdain it deserves.
It’s imperative that we not tolerate people with intolerant ideas. Earlier this week, the DNA Lounge made news for not allowing a disgustingly misogynist band to play on its stage. Of course, the internet trolls came out of their hidey-holes and whined about how intolerant and noninclusive the DNA Lounge is for not letting people with differing ideas perform.
In 1945, philosopher Karl Popper addressed this perfectly with his concept of the Paradox of Tolerance, which states, “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
In other words, if the misogynists, racists, homophobes and other intolerant assholes had their way, they would destroy us, and there is nothing wrong with being intolerant to people who wish to destroy you.
It’s also important to be generous and forgiving of people who are still learning how to support you. Because of the speed at which language morphs — now that we live our lives on the internet — we can’t expect everyone to get woke at the same time. There’s a huge difference between someone using the word “tranny” because they didn’t know that it was no longer an acceptable term, and someone who thinks being transgendered is wrong. I’ve had people in my life use the word, not knowing it was a hurtful term. Taking the time to explain that the term is offensive, instead of just writing them off as a bigot, made all the difference in the world.
Language is like magic. It has the power to conjure up things that didn’t exist and destroy entire ways of thinking. It can both create misunderstandings and fix them. But most importantly, language has power, and it’s upon us to use it to solidify our communities and bring people together instead of abusing it to push us further apart.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the San Francisco Examiner.