Spirituality and the Politics of Language

In today’s language lesson, we’ll be looking at words—specifically the meaning of words. When most people want to find out what a word means, they turn to the dictionary. This is an excellent resource, and it should go without saying that you should turn to it any time you find a word you’re not familiar with, but the definitions you find in the dictionary don’t tell the full story. There is meaning to words beyond these entries.

There are two kinds of meanings to words: denotation and connotation. I suspect more people will have experienced the latter word far more frequently than the former, which is kind of ironic because they will have spent far more time thinking about the former than the latter. Dictionaries are lists of words with their denotational meanings. (See, they both start with d, so you can use that to help you remember the difference if necessary.) Connotation refers to the emotional impact of a word, and even when two people share a mutual denotational definition of a word (as is common when both of them own dictionaries), they may not share the same connotation. Here’s an example:

* * *


If you say this word to a crowd of elderly bingo players, they are likely to react rather differently from how a crowd of rowdy teenagers would.

When politicians politicians’ staffers write their speeches, they use words whose connotation supports their intended message. If they want you to feel good about what they’re saying, they use language with a more positive connotation; likewise, if they’re talking about something they want you to dislike, they use words with a negatively charged one. This probably isn’t news to anyone, but if you’ve never thought about it before, pay attention next time you hear a politician speaking.

With this in mind, I’d like to have you momentarily consider the word socialism. What does this word mean?

If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough. --Albert EinsteinIf you live outside of the US, you may think the word describes the position that a government should provide a support network for its citizenry. If you live inside the US, however, this word may have a drastically different meaning.

If you attempt to describe American society as socialist, you are almost certain to be met with fierce disagreement. “We’re not socialist. We’re capitalist!” Yet this is an uninformed position. Medicare and Medicaid, social security, federal and state subsidies for farms and hospitals, free and open systems of transportation and public safety—these are examples of socialist policies. Yes, the United States may be very bad at being a socialist country when compared with its other socialist democracy counterparts in the developed world, but this does not undo the fact that many deeply entrenched American policies are rooted in socialist ideology.

In spite of this, socialism is a very scary word to many Americans (and most Republicans). It is not hard to find examples of conservative pundits who are quick to apply it to describe any policy they dislike (regardless of whether that policy has anything to do with socialist ideals). When they want to make so-called liberals (another word whose meaning is very different in the US) look really bad, they call these people … socialists.

Thus, the word socialist is one largely without a denotational meaning. To many (most notably the conservative voting bloc), the closest approximation of its meaning may very well be “a person who hates American values.” If pressed, I very strongly doubt most Republicans could provide an accurate definition (denotational meaning) for the word. (Democrats might fare only slightly better, but Democratic politicians don’t demonize the word like Republicans do.)

To your average Republican voter, the meaning of socialist probably looks something like this:

so·cial·ist   /ˈsoʊʃəlɪst/
1. Someone (probably a Democrat) who hates America and especially hates wealthy Americans
2. ??? (Scary!)

By now, you may be wondering “Well okay, I see the ‘politics of religion’ connection from the title, but what does any of this have to do with spirituality?” Well, in my case, it has quite a lot to do with it because I, just like American voters and socialism, have absolutely no idea what the word spiritual means.

Well, no, that’s not quite true. I understand what it can mean because I know how to use a dictionary:

spir·it·u·al   /ˈspɪrɪtʃuəl/
1. of, pertaining to, or consisting of spirit; incorporeal.
2. of or pertaining to the spirit or soul, as distinguished from the physical nature: a spiritual approach to life.
3. closely akin in interests, attitude, outlook, etc.: the professor’s spiritual heir in linguistics.
4. of or pertaining to spirits or to spiritualists; supernatural or spiritualistic.
5. characterized by or suggesting predominance of the spirit; ethereal or delicately refined: She is more of a spiritual type than her rowdy brother.
6. of or pertaining to the spirit as the seat of the moral or religious nature.
7. of or pertaining to sacred things or matters; religious; devotional; sacred.
8. of or belonging to the church; ecclesiastical: lords spiritual and temporal.
9. of or relating to the mind or intellect.

(Well, that’s a lot of references to “the spirit,” so let’s look that up too.)

spir·it   /ˈspɪrɪt/
1. the principle of conscious life; the vital principle in humans, animating the body or mediating between body and soul.
2. the incorporeal part of humans: present in spirit though absent in body.
3. the soul regarded as separating from the body at death.
4. conscious, incorporeal being, as opposed to matter: the world of spirit.
5. a supernatural, incorporeal being, especially one inhabiting a place, object, etc., or having a particular character: evil spirits.

Holy crap, that’s a lot of different meanings! The word can be used to describe both magic-woo phenomena (ghosts and whatnot) and entirely mundane phenomena (anything relating to the mind). No wonder I have such a hard time understanding what people who claim to be spiritual actually mean by it. Just like the Republican might have a hard time defining socialist, I have a hard time coming up with a definition of spiritual. Here are the possible interpretations of “I’m spiritual” that I see:

When a Christian says it:
“I believe in and worship Jesus, but I don’t go to church.” In this sense, it means a Christian whose interpretation of Christianity is their own invention.

When a non-Christian theist says it:
“I believe in some sort of magic.” This might have something to do with reiki, Wicca, crystal energies, or any other sort of newage fluff.

When an atheist says it:
“The cosmos fills me with a sense of wonder when I think about it.”  This is basically the Carl Sagan approach to appreciating the world.

With this, we see that all manner of theists and non-theists alike are entirely capable of truthfully making the claim, “I am a spiritual person.” What the fuck‽ What the hell is this supposed to mean‽

Well, that’s just it—it isn’t supposed to mean anything. It’s just doublespeak.

The statement is entirely devoid of denotational meaning. We have this twisted idea in our culture that being spiritual is a good thing, so the only meaning this word reliably has is a vaguely positive connotation. In making this claim, a person is leaving the interpretation completely open to the listener, trusting that they will follow the unspoken rule that whatever it actually means, being spiritual is automatically a good thing.

Well it isn’t. Just like socialist isn’t automatically a bad word.  Because in their respective contexts as I’ve described here, neither means anything.

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