Letter to the editor: Words mean everything

Alex McLean offers his 7 September column (“Conservative, not conniving”) mostly as a plea to avoid generalizations. As an example, he concedes that “not all Democrats are Antifa members.”
Yet it is not granted that not every “leftist” (a compliment, by the way) that he encounters will necessarily equate him with a group as vile as the Nazis (neo or otherwise).
His entire premise of avoiding undeserved labels is undermined by an inaccurate assumption: that “words mean very little.” If words mean little, then calling someone a Nazi, or Antifa, or any pejorative one can imagine, also means little.
I was compelled to respond because I am a linguist; words are my life. Words, and the meanings we attach, are the reason we are able to have this exchange, as words mostly have established, agreed upon meanings.
Symbols in general also have meaning, yet interpretation of those meanings can differ.
Much like McLean does not want to be called a Nazi, so too do (did) many Augustana students not want to have to walk on campus while reading, with every step, a phrase that has come to symbolize more than just a debate about immigration, but rather an attack on an entire heritage.
McLean’s casual dismissal of the chalking incident as “[not] actual harassment” diminishes the very real feelings of fellow Augustana students. I would like to think that was not his intent.
Words do have meanings, often beyond the literal, and how he feels about being called a Nazi is no different than how others might have felt reading, all throughout campus, a coopted phrase whose message is “Get out; your kind doesn’t belong here.”
And while students who experienced those feelings might disagree with McLean’s point of view, delegitimizing those feelings does not help.
Jeff Renaud, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Spanish linguistics
World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures