The word ‘rationalize’ gets a bad rap.
All too often it’s used to describe a situation wherein someone is justifying their bad decisions with cumbersome arguments that don’t quite add up. That’s not rationality, that’s back-tracking. Rationality involved applying logic. It’s what makes civilization, technology, and all the other bits and bobs we enjoy on a daily basis possible.
Rationalizing is one of the most fulfilling and human activities one can undertake, and yet it’s developed such a negative connotation.
And what about the phrase ‘try-hard’?
The way it’s used these days, try-hard is an insult hurled at people who seem to be showing off or otherwise outpacing those around them.
My question is this: if you aren’t trying hard, what exactly are you doing with your time? And further: why should I care what someone who doesn’t try hard has to say about me or anyone else?
Those who demonize rationality are trying to pull you into a situation where their opinions are all that matter, facts be damned. There are also those who want to slouch their way through life, getting offended when anyone else makes them look short by standing tall. ‘Try-hard’ is their attempt to make their sloth an honorific and your ambition a scarlet ‘A.’
‘Atheist,’ ‘liberal,’ ‘intellectual,’ ‘French,’ ‘Capitalist,’ ‘moderate,’ ‘immigrant,’ these are all words that contain a great deal of meaning, but have been reduced to insults or developed negative associations in recent memory.
It should be noted that each of these words has also been commonly considered a good thing in the past.
So what’s changed? What makes a word bad or good?
There’s public sentiment, of course. But political, religious, and corporate spin-machines often control public sentiment.
At the end of the day, though, words can’t be put in our mouths if we don’t want them to be there, or at least not words with manipulated meanings. ‘Rationalizing’ can once more mean that you’re thinking logically and reasonably, while ‘try-hard’ can cease to be slung mud and once again be a mark of someone who is striving to reach their goals.
Words have power, but they will cease to if everyone gives the same words a different meaning. This is far from ideal, because when words become powerless, the person with the most guns is the one with all the power.
So let’s avoid more totalitarian regimes, shall we? Think about what you say. Anything else would be irrational.
Update: February 3, 2017
Just today, I edited an essay I wrote about this very topic. Not these words specifically, but how we lose out when our words become overloaded with baggage, or cease to have the potent meaning once ascribed to them.