Opinion: The Weight of Our Words

The bleaching of terms inevitably leads to a flattening of nuance in discussions online.

Conceptual+clarity%2C+especially+in+political+and+psychological+spaces%2C+is+integral+to+having+a+productive+and+genuine+discussion.

Kat kli

Conceptual clarity, especially in political and psychological spaces, is integral to having a productive and genuine discussion.

Aris Pastor, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Online psychology spaces are full of warped definitions, medical terms that have become disturbingly colloquial, and diagnoses that have become yet another commodity in the attention economy. The term “depression” comes to mind, especially its popular generalization as simply sadness, as does the distortion of anxiety as mere nervousness. Of course, those simplifications were present long before the internet grew to what it is today, especially given previous generations’ resistance to advancing mental health research. 

However, as with other phenomena, social media and the internet have exacerbated this flattening of terms to an absurd degree. Take, for instance, the development of “gaslighting” as a word online.

The term originated from the 1938 hit play of the same name, in which a man manipulates his wife using gas lamps, pushing her to a point in which she thinks that she has gone insane.  

Tracy Conner, a sociolinguistics professor at Northwestern University, gave the term a working definition. She stated that gaslighting is “a form of conscious or subconscious psychological manipulation mediated through language or by the actions of a speaker with a perceived higher status that has the effect of invalidating or denying the interlocutors’ reality or lived experience in an interaction or interactions, with the impact of discrediting them within a micro or macro context.”

Over the years, though, as the word began to be used incorrectly. Most often, “gaslight” has become synonymous with “lying”, and from Twitter arguments to Reddit threads to health blogs, users have noticed its overuse. The word has lost any of the specific meaning it indicated in the past, a process that Caleb Madison of The Atlantic calls semantic bleaching.

At this point, “gaslight” has reached the end of a word’s life cycle on the internet; it has been appropriated in the “Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss” meme, becoming another term buried under layers of irony, washed of all academic meaning. 

Similarly, words and phrases like emotional labor, trauma, and parasocial relationships have been repeated ad nauseum, warping these ideas until they are functionally useless. ”

This phenomenon is not limited to psychology, either. The word “woke” used to mean being socially or politically aware, but a right-wing focused approach to semantic bleaching has reframed the word into implying sensitivity or irrationality towards politics. Similarly, words and phrases like “emotional labor,” “trauma,” and “parasocial relationships” have been repeated ad nauseum, warping these ideas until they are functionally useless. 

This type of semantic cleansing can simultaneously make online debates more complicated and more reductive. The endless debates about cancel culture come to mind, especially due to the myriad of definitions people have for the term, leading to an ultimately less productive discussion. 

The culprit is partially the limited nature of social media. Platforms are limited by 60-second run-times or 280 character limits. The language of the internet has become memes and irony, references to other media, and the inevitable misunderstanding of such limited phrases. Social media must be inherently reductive when the platforms these discussions are based on literally reduce dialogues. 

This warping of language feeds into misinformation while simultaneously being a product of it. Semantic cleansing is cyclical, making it ever more important in psychological discussions, in medicine, in the political and the personal. 

Semantic cleansing is cyclical, making it ever more important in psychological discussions, in medicine, in the political and the personal. ”

These fundamental misunderstandings exacerbate division. Narcissism is no longer a disorder that can be treated but a condemnation, a demonization. Gaslighting can mean almost anything, from a simple misunderstanding to its true definition. Even memes like “okay boomer” or “Karens” become warped from their intended meaning. 

It can feel easier to play along with the shifting meaning of words, especially since many of these terms are those that move from medical to colloquial. Many of these terms, especially psychological ones, divorced from their original context, become unthinkingly convenient. Diagnoses become a way to categorize the world, and pathologizing yourself and others is a seemingly easy way to find community. 

These terms can also feel more serious. In an online space dominated by a competition for attention, saying that you’re being gaslit is bound to receive more sympathy than simply saying that you were lied to. Of course, this too has layers—after all, mental health disparities in the real world create the demand for online sympathy. At the same time, the internet is simply too flawed to accommodate the needs of every person. 

“The internet is basically a categorization machine,” health writer P.E. Moskowitz reported to Vox, “so part of me thinks it’s inherent to the internet, or at least inherent to corporate social media, where we all feel so overwhelmed by the vastness of the space and the number of people we interact with that we must whittle ourselves down into categories. [But] the categorization allows for a flattening of nuance.”

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Editors’ note: All opinions expressed on The Uproar are a reflection solely of the beliefs of the bylined author and not the journalism program at NASH.  We continue to welcome school-appropriate comments and guest articles.