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“People”: a user’s guide

Words like “P2P” or “people” become dangerous if we allow them to be used ambiguously. Not because it’s destructive per se for their meanings to evolve, even to mean less, but because they are pushed to mean the opposite of what they meant, supported by the feelings and emotions that the original definition brought out in us.

manifestiThe “great meaning-destroying machinenever sleeps. There’s no concept it doesn’t make fashionably banal, idea it doesn’t reduce a caricature, or word it doesn’t empty out until it’s powerless. Its strategy is relentless: expand use through emotional associations, separate terms from their context, and stretch a thing until it means its opposite. Its list of crimes is almost infinite. Just on the Internet, we saw a few in the last five years: interaction is confused with participation, which, in turn, is confused with adherence, reducing the value of commitment to nothing, or close to it; distributed became a synonym for decentralized, even though it means the opposite…

The ability to generate oxymorons on the basis of eroding meanings looked like it had reached an objective limit, but no, when the crisis came, we had yet to discover that there are cooperatives that, instead of developing autonomy, are created to look for employment in businesses beyond their members. Work cooperatively to find a job working for someone else?! The more instinctive, more basic, and less used the word in question, the easier it is to decontextualize it. The trouble is that, without context, not only is knowledge not developed, but it’s corrosive to the community that accepts the change.

That’s why I’m worried about the extension of the use of the word “people. No word could be more instinctive, closer, or headier. “People, not machines,” we say. “Incubate people,” we insist… But the flank we offer is immense, and we risk feeding — who knows? — a new monster. While totalitarianism of the twentieth century was built on ideas about homelands and classes, many things point to this century’s totalitarianism being built by embracing the banner of “people” and the “common good.” The new starting points offer less resistance.

When “people” means the opposite of people

We all know what we mean by “people.” We’re referring to real beings with first and last names. We’re talking about ourselves and others in the concrete dimension, irreducible from the real community. And we do it because we’re fed up with imaginary communities (the proletariat, homelands, gender, youth, and whatever’s yet to come…) and with the infinite destructive capacity of thinking “from God’s vantage point,” which will only call us to new sacrifices time and time again putting big words and big abstractions above the people we love, above what we call our real community, where everyone has a name and a face that we remember, and calls up emotions in us.

“People”: a user’s guide

But “people,” the word, is a awful pit. It’s terribly easy to use it as an abstract concept, as a nebulous and intangible God, and yet be heard by the listener as if the speaker was referring to actual people… So, I propose a technique, a simple game to tell when they’re trying to give us the bait and switch, universalism for community:

  1. How would it sound if we substituted “people” with a list of proper names? For example, when we Indianos talk about the Indianos, we could substitute “Indianos” with our names, and it wouldn’t change the meaning of the sentence, it would just make it longer; but when someone says that to rescue politics, “we need to put people at the center,” could we substitute “people” with a concrete, finite list of names of real people that the speaker knows and is referring to? I would say no.
  2. Can “people” be substituted in the sentence with an abstract concept? For example, “the Proletariat,” “fellow citizens” or “the workers?” Bad sign.
  3. Can it be substituted with the word “resource” or “labor” without the sentence changing meaning?
  4. Is its purpose in the sentence to mark, more or less subtly, a division between two imaginary communities? For example: “the people who were born here” not only can very rarely be replaced by a concrete list of known names, but also defines a person by a quality (having been born “here”), leaving out those who don’t have it (immigrants). It’s unknown whether it’s because they’re not people, or because the message is that there are people and there are “people.”
  5. Is “person” accompanied by an adjective? This kind of constructions are generally used to depersonalize and reduce someone real to a representative of an imaginary community. For example, when the media talk to us about “an immigrant person,” or “a sub-Saharan person,” instead of using their name or initials, or worse still, accompanying them. If he or she is a person, they have a name, and if not (if it’s not Maria, Sasha, Manuel, Rashid, or whatever it happens to be), then, we’re really in for more of the same in a slightly more roundabout way: a timid euphemism to keep devaluing real people, who are reduced, as in every imaginary community, to representatives of an archetype that supposedly configures them and presents the community to us.

The moral of the story

Words shape worlds — they legitimize some narratives and delegitimize others. One of the most regrettable phenomena of decomposition is that it works as a “great meaning-destroying machine” that empties out words, dissolving that which words bring together in conversation. And it’s not just the ability to create knowledge through words and contexts, it’s the value of the bonds in the community that degrade.

Words like “P2P” or “people” become dangerous if we allow them to be used ambiguously. Not because it’s destructive per se for their meanings to evolve, even to mean less, but because they are pushed to mean the opposite of what they meant, supported by the feelings and emotions that the original definition brought out in us.

Translated by Steve Herrick from the original (in Spanish)

«“People”: a user’s guide» recibió 2 desde que se publicó el jueves 11 de abril de 2013 . Si te ha gustado este post quizá te gusten otros posts escritos por David de Ugarte.

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