big

See if you can spot what all of these terms have in common: Big Government, Big Pharma, Big Oil.

That’s right. It’s the word “big.”

“Big Government” refers to the idea that when a government tries to do too many things, it gets carried away like an overbearing boss who can’t keep his nose out of your projects. Some people believe this idea is correct. “Big Pharma” refers to the pharmaceutical industry, which some people believe is responsible for horrors such as repressing information that might cure cancer so that it can sell more cancer-treatment drugs. “Big Oil” refers to the oil industry. Or lobbyists for the oil industry. It refers to a group of people for whom personal profit, even at great cost to others, is the most important thing in the world.

You’re very smart, so you’ve probably already spotted the other thing these terms have in common. They all suggest a single-minded conspiracy of powerful people who don’t care about you. They want your money or they want to control you. They are meeting in dark rooms and and smoking cigars.

It’s true that groups of people can do a lot of damage in the world if they work together, but it’s also very difficult to find any group of people wherein everyone is an evil genius. Most people are not cackling in the dark, looking for new ways to harm or oppress you. They have their own stuff going on.

fundamentalist

A fundamentalist is a person who adheres strictly to a set of religious tenets. The people who made up the word meant for it to sound simple and true: Fundamentals. Back to basics. None of this newfangled loosey-goosey stuff.

Unfortunately for them, it has also come to mean “rigid, unreasonable people who are convinced they’re right all the time.”

So an updated definition of “fundamentalist” might be: a person who adheres strictly to ANY set of beliefs, religious or otherwise.

But if you pay attention to the way people actually use it, you may find that what they mean by “fundamentalist” is often: a person whose beliefs are very different from mine.

the tea party

The Tea Party is a branch of the U.S. Republican Party. Its name is a reference to the Boston Tea Party.

This is the story of the Boston Tea Party, as told to American children:

Way back at the dawn of civilization (1773), the English government made British colonists Americans pay taxes even though they didn’t have any say in how their tax money would be spent. Eventually the colonists Americans got sick of it, so they threw a bunch of tea into Boston Harbor before the English government had a chance to sell/tax it. The whole thing was very funny because English people love tea.

The people in the Tea Party have a lot of opinions about taxes. This is the story they want you to tell yourself every time you hear their name: They’re just like the scrappy pre-historic Americans, demanding a say in the national budget.

Here at Wordmonster, we are not experts in human behavior. We are not experts in anything. But we have noticed that people who tell flattering stories about themselves are often delusional or at least unbearably self-absorbed. Watch them closely.

hitler

Adolf Hitler was a genocidal dictator in the second world war. “Genocidal” means he killed a lot of people because he thought they were different from him.

If you’ve ever been in an argument or seen one, you’ve probably witnessed one person comparing another to Hitler even though neither of them has ever committed genocide. There are two reasons this can happen.

The first reason is: The accuser has made a mistake, an error in reasoning. She believes that just because her opponent has one thing in common with Hitler (like being a vegetarian or having a mustache), it means he is probably planning a genocide in his spare time.

The second reason is that no one likes to lose arguments.

Hitler was a terrifying person. It’s scary to think about the things he did. If we can get all the people listening to our argument to think about murderous hatred whenever they see our opponent’s face, they’re more likely to side with us.

empathy

Empathy is imagining what it feels like to be somebody else.

When we introduce children to this idea, it’s usually because one of them snatched a toy away from another one. We point out to the toy thief that she wouldn’t like it very much if someone came along and stole her toy. Then we explain that other children have feelings just like hers. The lesson is: Treat other people the way you want them to treat you.

If you’ve been out of kindergarten for a while, you may have noticed that not everyone likes the same things you like. There’s some overlap (nobody likes having their toys stolen), but people can have very different ideas about what it means to be treated well.

Empathy isn’t really about how you would feel if you were treated a certain way. It’s about how someone else actually does feel when treated that way. This can be a tricky distinction, even for adults. I’ll give you an example.

Say you have a friend who is very tall. He is so tall that complete strangers often announce to him that he is tall and demand to know his exact height. He says it’s sort of annoying, but you don’t believe him because you’ve always been self-conscious about your own height. You are short. You’d love it if you were so tall that people stopped you on the street to talk to you about it. You can’t imagine how this could ever annoy anyone.

But if you want to empathize with your friend, it doesn’t matter how you think you’d feel if you suddenly became a much taller person. You have to imagine being your friend, seeing things the way he does, surrounded constantly by tiny irritating people who won’t shut up about his height.

That’s empathy.

angry

Angry people aren’t great company. They can be grouchy, aggressive, and loud. Everyone is angry sometimes.

You may have noticed that the word “angry” is sometimes applied to people who haven’t actually displayed any of the above qualities. Even worse, some people are fond of calling entire groups of (other) people angry, or accusing just one person who belongs to an “angry” group of being angry, even if they’re not.

The idea is, if you don’t like the look of somebody or the sound of the things they profess to believe (or not believe), if that person says anything that challenges you in any way, she is basically screaming and punching holes in your walls for no reason.

Why would you listen to a person like that?

winners and losers

Sometimes, when a really big thing happens — a big thing like a natural disaster, a scientific discovery, a terrorist attack, or a government shutdown — political commentators try to determine who the “winners and losers” of the Big Thing are.

This is a metaphor. In this metaphor, the Big Thing is a game and the people affected are the players. The “winners” are the people who benefited from the Big Thing and the “losers” are the people it inconvenienced or harmed.

In some ways, the metaphor is a good one. In both games and world affairs, people can be petty, vindictive, callous, and self-serving. Sometimes they’re lucky. Sometimes they cheat. Sometimes everybody follows the rules and nobody takes home the prize.

The main difference between an actual game and a political game is: Actual games don’t matter. Sure, a few egos are at stake — maybe the feelings of a few superfans — but nothing tangible hinges on the end the game. No matter who wins, thousands of people aren’t going to die or go hungry or lose their jobs as a result.

By contrast, political “games” really do affect people who aren’t wearing a uniform or a headset.

Talking about the “winners and losers” of these “games” makes it easy to forget about the actual humans whose actual lives are all tied up in the outcome. It also encourages the people holding the cards to score cheap points any way they can.

compromise

A compromise is what happens when people who want different things each agree to give up some of the things they want in favor of what the other people want.

Because compromising isn’t as much fun as getting everything you want, a lot people don’t like to do it. It might be a coincidence, but we also use the word “compromise” to describe breaches of security (“Our location is compromised! Run!”) and certain kinds of personal failings (nobody wants to be caught compromising their morals).

Some compromises are good for society — they help keep us all from tearing each other’s faces off in pursuit of the things we want. But compromising can also be a disaster.

The word “compromise,” like the word “balanced,” can be misleading. People who say it are counting on you to think of the good kind of compromise: reasonable, civil adults striking a deal nobody hates too much. A little of this and a little of that. How could anyone not support this?

Let’s compromise: You do my laundry and I won’t throw your puppy into the ocean. I’ll give you my seat on the train, but you have to buy me coffee every day next week. You take the first piece of cake and I’ll take the rest.

What’s that? You DON’T want to compromise with me? You have such a bad attitude.

lazy

Lazy people are people who don’t work very hard (or at all) because they don’t feel like it.

When you call a person lazy, you’re really saying two different things: 1. The person doesn’t work very hard, and 2. The reason she doesn’t work very hard is that she doesn’t feel like working. You might be wrong about one or both of those things.

It’s pretty easy to find lazy people. In classrooms and restaurants and fields and factories and apartments and corner offices all over the world, there are people of every age, gender, race, religion, and social class who refuse to exert even the tiniest amount of effort. In all of these places, you will also find people who work very hard.

Certain groups of people seem to be called lazy more often than others. You rarely hear about lazy old people or lazy rich people, but you’ve probably met some.

Believing that most poor people are poor because they are lazy makes it very easy to believe being poor is a choice — poor people could just as easily not be poor if they really wanted to. It also saves you from having to consider the possibility that some really important things are arbitrary, that hard work doesn’t always pay, and sometimes the person in charge is the laziest person of all.