I had a recent discussion with some passionate people who were frustrated by various public figures describing themselves as libertarian.  They felt it imperative to police the use of this word and go on the offensive, making sure to publicly demonstrate how wrong it was for people to use the word to describe themselves unless they believe certain things.  I’m not sure this is a productive response.

I understand the frustration.  When you use a word to describe yourself or your philosophy, you become increasingly attuned to how the word is used and perceived among the masses.  Christians and other religious groups have this problem, as do political ideologies.  It’s easy to feel like the labels you use abandon you as they become hijacked by people with views entirely different from your own.  The often cited example of the word “liberal” serves as a warning in the minds of many of what happens if you don’t fight to protect definitions.  It used to describe the ideas of people who favored more freedom from government power, now it means something far more nebulous and sometimes it is even used to describe the ideas of people who see more government power as the solution to nearly everything.

But who has “lost” in the transition?  It is true certain words sound nicer than others, but the word was always a shortcut to convey ideas.  The ideas are still here.  You are no less free to believe in less state power because the word “liberal” has changed meaning over the years.  You are no less free to use the word as you choose either.

To say that a word is hijacked is to assume it was first owned.  Can you really own a word?  Language is a constantly evolving spontaneous order.  You can use it, influence it, and benefit from it.  You can’t really own it.  If you spend your time feeling bitter and robbed when people use language in ways you don’t like, you will probably enjoy life less and you’ll be no more able to stand athwart language and yell, “stop!”

There are two potentially productive responses.  You can simply ignore the misuse.  Stop using the word if you must.  Or keep using it if it makes sense.  Or use it sometimes and not others.  Ask people to clarify what they mean by a word if you’re not sure, but don’t demand they stop using it.  Try going label-less.  Be indescribable.  It can be a little inconvenient, but it can also be a lot of fun.

Maybe labels are too important to you to drop and you want to influence the way they are used.  Instead of getting mad, see it as a kind of game or challenge.  What can you do to alter the way people perceive a word?  If you want people to associate good things with labels you use, live a life that impresses and attracts them.  Your ideas and your example are likely to do more to shape the meaning of the word than direct attempts to define it.  When you hear the word “Buddhist” or “Atheist” do you think only of the dictionary definition, or do you think about the way people using that label speak and behave?   Living your ideas will certainly do more for them than brow-beating word abusers.

Live your philosophy and don’t worry about trying to own the words that describe it.  Either live without labels, or live in such a way that it improves the public image of your labels.  Appointing yourself language police and waging war over words is likely to make you look small and grumpy.

If you live in perpetual fear that whatever label you belong to might move in a direction you don’t approve of, then you’re being owned by that label.  Language is an awesome and beautiful tool, but it won’t be made a slave and it’s a poor master.  It can be used, but it can’t be owned.  When you try, it tends to own you.