Wednesday, August 5, 2015

What Does "Socialism" Really Mean?

The seemingly endless presidential election process in the United States can get to be very annoying, especially for those who live in a "battleground state" with an early primary election (or caucus, as is the case in my home state of Iowa). I'm actually quite interested in politics and believe that choosing the next president is an important task, but that doesn't mean I want to answer five political robocalls a day for the next 15 months, or have to endure the never-ending deluge of political ads every time I try to watch television.

I can deal with those annoyances by watching less television and using Caller ID, but there is one thing about the election process that really does drive me crazy: the use of political buzzwords. Politicians love buzzwords, which are words or phrases that are very popular for a period of time. Last year we took a look at corporate buzzwords like synergy, but political buzzwords can be more insidious, since they're often used in order to manipulate you into feeling a certain way.

There are plenty of political buzzwords being thrown around by politicians at the moment, but the one that really bothers me is socialism. Why? To be honest, because most Americans have no idea what it means. For much of my life, I didn't really know what socialism meant either... I just knew it was one of those big concepts like capitalism and communism. I'm sure we learned about it briefly in school, but its definition soon faded into the recesses of my brain.

American Gothic by Grant Wood
During the last election however, socialism reached peak importance in the realm of political buzzwords. Suddenly Republican politicians were constantly denouncing ideas they didn't like as "socialism" and calling President Obama a "socialist". Meanwhile, Democrats seemed to avoid saying the word at all costs. Yet nobody seemed to really know what it meant, except that it had dark and nefarious connotations.

So what does socialism mean? According to the Oxford Dictionaries, socialism is "a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole". It's an incredibly complex term that can be defined and applied to society in a variety of ways, as you can see from its lengthy Wikipedia article. I certainly cannot profess to be an expert in its definition, but I do know that using it for general name-calling is silly and also harmful, since it encourages ignorance of the word's true definition.

We're not interested in starting any political arguments here at The Lingua File, but we do believe that words can be important. If people want to use "socialist" as an insult, they are more than welcome to, but they should do so with the knowledge of what it actually means. Many Americans use this term after hearing it repeated from the mouths of politicians, but few understand that there already are dozens of examples of socialism at work in American society that they probably agree with, including public libraries, local police departments, weekly trash collection, public snow removal services, highways, and public schools.

If you really do disagree with all of these things that are generally accepted to make life in America better and easier, go right ahead and use "socialism" as an insult. If not, perhaps you could come up with a better, more accurate term to voice your disagreements with certain politicians. Who knows, perhaps it will even become the next big buzzword!