I have a confession to make. Not only was I not a STEM major, I was one of those dreaded students of philosophy. In fact, though I double-majored in English, I identified solely as a philosophy major whenever I could get away with it. While philosophy has many problems, from its lack of growth in female representation to its whiteness, it does distinguish itself as a field that demands its students to examine communication at the meta level.
The old joke among philosophy professors is that parents should dread that first Christmas when their philosophy undergrad children return home to ask, of even the simplest inquiries, “Well, what do you mean by that?”
Low-hanging humor about annoying fresh-people aside, “What do you mean by that?” is quite a powerful tool in working towards better understanding and communication. Context matters. People within and/or from different contexts will use the same words and mean entirely different things by them. There is a level of miscommunication that can occur which goes beyond misinterpretation or lack of interpretation of tone or body language. Factors such as background, socialization, class, education, field of employment, country of origin, level of multi-lingual proficiency, neuro-typicality or -atypicality, and even simple mood can affect what a word means when a person uses it.
I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that communication never happens or that adequate communication is impossible or even all that difficult, at least most of the time. That is because there do exist, descriptively speaking, normative standards for language and meaning. These standards can be changed and certainly do, especially over time and through different contexts within the same time period. For example, “privilege,” that oft-maligned term, means something quite simple and readily discernible to people accustomed to normative standards of language when paired with the term “administrative” and used in reference to digital matters. On the other hand, “privilege” as used in a social justice context is a concept somewhat less easy to comprehend for the uninitiated.
Quibbling overmuch over the slight details of the words being used is often pointless, to be sure. For example, the word “literally” has been so misused that, however much of a dictionary-thumper a person might be, they’d have to be willfully and stubbornly ignorant to not understand that most people do not use it literally. Such irony. Isn’t it also ironic that I have been torturing all of you prescriptivists and language purists since I used to be both? (Okay, I’ll stop.) At the same time, that doesn’t mean that words can or should be used with the understanding that others should be able to magically guess what you mean.
Privilege, and not in the administrative sense, plays a role here. People who expect others to somehow understand what they mean no matter how non-normatively they are using a particular word are often unconsciously appealing to some kind of privilege. A person like that is essentially expecting that all people with whom they speak take into account a particular context, frame of reference, and point of view. For a person to insist that their definition of the word is the only one that matters is privilege in a nutshell.
So what to do when, say, someone says something with which you disagree, you engage them on it, and they declare it a matter of “mere” semantics?
@futilityfiles Many times I think people say “just semantics” when try should be saying “I may have misspoken.”
— Sasha Pixlee (@sashapixlee) March 29, 2013
Being able to admit that you’re unsure of what someone else means, to recognize that your point of view isn’t universal, and even to admit that you might have simply misspoken is incredibly admirable. It also means admitting that you made some kind of mistake, which is hard for the vast majority of people. If the person in question is unable to do so, their declaration that “it’s just semantics” often is intended to trivialize the point and end the argument. Their playing of the “semantics” card shouldn’t end the conversation, it should start one about meaning and word choice.