At times it would seem that broadly accepted definitions for words and their appropriate use are changed daily. Today I present you with one of the examples more sinister in its subtlety.
Let’s begin with an interactive thought exercise. It may be helpful to record your answer to the following question prior to checking the contents of the spoiler block below. This is because there is a part of our brain referred to as the “left brain interpreter” (feel free to use your favorite search engine to briefly familiarize yourself with this) that is thought to be responsible for integrating (at times conflicting) information with our worldview in order to fabricate a schema that seems plausible and consistent. It would be fair to say that current research suggests its the main culprit in matters of cognitive dissonance.
What does the word ‘condescension’ mean to you?
Here’s today’s definition for ‘condescension’ per Google, provided by Oxford Languages: “an attitude of patronizing superiority; disdain.”
Notice the criteria for condescension is predicated on the word ‘patronizing’. Let’s take a look at that.
Here’s today’s definition for ‘patronizing’ from the same source: “apparently kind or helpful but betraying a feeling of superiority; condescending.”
Betraying in this context probably most closely aligns with its definition of ‘unintentionally revealing’.
So then to be patronizing is to ‘unintentionally reveal’ the fact that you ‘feel superior’ to the person you’re being apparently kind or helpful toward.
See any problems? I’ll highlight a few.
- Jeremiah 17:9 makes it clear that the heart, to include intentions of the heart are effectively unknowable. Bear in mind, if this includes our own hearts, surely it extends to the hearts of others. After all, it stands to reason that it is less difficult to inquire and come to objectively know something about myself than it is to inquire and objectively come to know something about someone else. So to conclude that someone is being patronizing is to assume you objectively know the intentions of their heart and how they’re feeling than they do. Between you and them, you’re the alleged authority on objective intrapersonal truth claims. That’s what’s being presupposed, just so we’re clear.
Having made what I believe to be a strong case that it’s not possible to objectively assert that someone is being condescending for reasons I mention above:
- Can you think of anyone who is has all knowledge, to include knowledge of the intentions of the heart?
- Can you think of anyone who is objectively superior in every way who is often graciously kind and helpful toward inferior creatures?
That’s right. God.
So, what’s my point? My point not unlike one that George Orwell made in 1984. Language informs our minds and relate to abstract concepts. Have you ever tried to think of an abstract concept for which no word exists? Try it some time. Condescension today is, as we’ve demonstrated, clearly viewed in a negative context. Would you be interested to know that wasn’t always the case? The last time in American literature that the word ‘condescension’ was used in a neutral (or actually positive) context was published in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen in 1813 when describing Lady Catherine. You can read one such example from that book here.
Be mindful of the uninspired jots and tittles of men. While it is certainly prudent to consider the logical consequences of revisions (as with this individual word, as well as with some entire texts), in at least some cases I’ve come across, the ramifications of this sort of epistemological erosion is not immediately obvious.
I hope this article has been informative. God bless.