Tag Archives: language

Strategy And Language Matter

One of the more under-appreciated consequences of living in information “bubbles” is  lack of recognition of the realities of political communication. 

Because I write this blog, I routinely access messages from the left, right and (dwindling) center, and it has become obvious that Americans who reside in silos are simply unaware of what the people in other bubbles are hearing and thinking. They aren’t only “preaching to the choir”–they believe most of the church is singing their hymns. 

I will admit to a partial bias in that direction myself–as I read claims made by those promulgating the “Big Lie” or bizarre beliefs of QAnon adherents, I wonder how any sentient person could believe such nonsense. But then, I remind myself that an uncomfortable number of people do believe these things–and that the language we employ to communicate with their fellow-travelers matters.

In my own silo, too many people have forgotten that. Too many see arguments about strategy as lack of commitment to progressive goals. 

We saw this most recently with the disastrous “Defund the Police” slogan. No one I know disagreed with the goals of the “defund” movement, which were eminently reasonable. But people with even a moderate understanding of political strategy understood how easily that slogan could be weaponized against progressive candidates.  Purists defending the slogan by insisting that it “just needed to be explained” were incredibly naive.

If there is one thing Republicans do well, it’s demonizing and weaponizing progressive terminology. It began a long time ago, when the GOP managed to turn “liberal” into a swear word, or a synonym for communist. They have had somewhat less success with “socialist,” mostly because they accuse any government action–most recently, repairing infrastructure–as “socialism.” (Or in Marjorie Taylor Green’s case, as communism.)

That one talent–turning progressive words into weapons–can derail well-intentioned but clumsy efforts to avoid hurtful language. 

Michelle Goldberg recently wrote about one such effort to demonstrate “wokeness” via terminology.

If you follow debates over the strident style of social justice politics often derided as “wokeness,” you might have heard about a document called “Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts.” Put out by the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges Center for Health Justice, the guide is a long list of terms and phrases that some earnest people have decided others in the medical field should avoid using, along with their preferred substitutes.

Some of these substitutions make sense; health care professionals shouldn’t be referring to people who’ve been in prison as “ex-cons.” Some are a matter of keeping up with the times, like capitalizing Black when talking about Black people. Some, however, are obnoxious and presumptuous and would impede clear communication. For example, the guide suggests replacing “vulnerable” with “oppressed,” even though they’re not synonymous: it’s not oppression that makes the elderly vulnerable to Covid.

As Goldberg points out, “Advancing Health Equity” would probably be ignored, if it didn’t “inadvertently advance the right-wing narrative that progressive newspeak is colonizing every aspect of American life.” Parts of the “diversity, equity and inclusion” movement are admittedly heavy-handed and feckless, and the rest of us keep having to answer for them.

John McWhorter, recently made much the same point in a column about the use and misuse of the term woke. McWhorter traced the emergence of the term and its original utility–and the subsequent success of reactionaries and White Nationalists in weaponizing it.

“Woke” has also followed a trajectory similar to that of the phrase “politically correct,” which carried a similar meaning by the late 1980s and early 1990s: “Politically correct,” unsurprisingly, went from describing a way of seeing the world to describing the people who saw the world that way to describing the way other people felt about the people who saw the world that way. Some in the politically correct crowd on the left had a way of treating those outside it with a certain contempt. This led to the right refashioning “politically correct” as a term of derision, regularly indicated with the tart abbreviation “P.C.” The term faded over the years, and by 2015, when the presidential candidate Donald Trump was declaring that “political correctness is just absolutely killing us as a country,” “woke” already had greater currency.

There probably wasn’t much progressives could do about “woke,” which began as a useful descriptor. But as Goldberg points out, there is a lesson here, and activists who actually want to win elections need to learn it. Language matters–and reluctance to use terminology that is a gift to the GOP isn’t evidence of a lesser commitment to the cause.

 

Atwater’s Explanation Still Applies

I believe it was Tallyrand who said “Man was given speech to disguise his thoughts, and words to disguise his eyes.” Had he been a contemporary American, he’d have been an enthusiastic Republican.

The late, legendary campaign consultant Lee Atwater once explained how Republicans won the vote of racists by manipulating language:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Nowadays, the economic linguistic game revolves around “socialism.” It took me a long time to realize that it’s the same game.

As an article in TNR noted,

to hear Republicans tell it, virtually everything government does is socialism; it is utterly foreign to the United States, and it cannot be implemented without imposing tyranny on the American people, along with poverty and deprivation such as we see today in Venezuela, where socialism allegedly destroyed the country.

It’s necessary to label and distort, to hide the real message, because many of the programs that trigger GOP hysteria over “socialism” are wildly popular: Medicare and Social Security come to mind. (Others are expected government services. As one friend noted on Facebook when it began to snow, “Look out for those socialist snowplows!”)

If GOP pundits and policymakers really wanted to discuss economics, rather than hide their actual motives, they would define their terms. They don’t, so allow me.

Socialism is generally what we call mixed economies where the social safety net is much broader and the tax burden somewhat higher than in the U.S. (Not as much higher as most think, actually)—Scandinavian countries are an example. The terminology tends to obscure the fact that most of those countries also maintain thriving private sector capitalist markets. 

Republicans misuse of the term also obscures the considerable amount of socialism enjoyed by wealthy Americans. A system that privatizes profits and socializes losses is hardly free-market capitalism. It’s socialism for the rich and brutal capitalism for the poor.

Socialism isn’t Communism. Communists believe that equality is defined by equal results. All property is owned communally, by everyone (hence the term “communism”). In practice, this meant that all property was owned by the government, ostensibly on behalf of the people. In theory, communism erases all class distinctions, and wealth is redistributed so that everyone gets the same share.  In practice, the government controls the means of production and most individual decisions are made by the state. Since the quality and quantity of work is divorced from reward, there is less incentive to innovate or produce, and ultimately, countries that have tried to create a communist system have collapsed (the USSR) or moved toward a more mixed economy (China).

Socialism isn’t Fascism. Some of our dimmer policymakers like to say that Nazi Germany was “Socialist” because fascism was sometimes called “national Socialism,” however the two are very different. In fascist systems, the nation is elevated—a fervent nationalism (MAGA?) is central to fascist philosophy. Although there is nominally private property, government controls business decisions. Fascist regimes tend to be focused upon a (glorious) past, and to insist upon traditional class structures and gender roles as necessary to maintain the social order.

The biggest problem with turning words into epithets, or using them to veil our real meaning isn’t just that it’s intellectually dishonest; it’s because labeling and dismissing avoids the conversations we ought to be having.

For one thing, the use of economic language to obscure real motives has left the U.S. with the most dysfunctional–and expensive– delivery of health care in the developed world.

The basic question in any economic system is: what should government do, and what should be left to the private sector? Another way to put that is: what services should be supplied communally? We “socialize” police and fire protection, provision of most physical infrastructure, and numerous other services–parks, garbage collection, schools, those snow plows–because it is fairer, more efficient and/or more cost-effective to do so. Those decisions don’t turn us into Venezuela.

When you deconstruct it, the GOP opposition to programs they label “socialism” is explained perfectly by  Atwater’s admission. White Republican Americans are unwilling to have their taxes benefit “those people.”

 

 

Words, Words, Words….

Words matter.

In the absence of symbols–words–to express an idea, we cannot form that idea. There is a substantial psychological literature on “framing” (I have often said that all of law school was an explication of the axiom “He who frames the issue wins the debate.”) Control of language is often tantamount to control of the people who communicate in that language.

Inept as it is at actual governing, the Trump administration does understand the power of language. When the President of the United States defends his anti-immigrant policies by claiming he wants to prevent an “infestation,” the equation of immigrants with vermin deliberately dehumanizes those immigrants.

It doesn’t stop with Trump’s vermin and “shitholes.”

Federal websites have been “scrubbed” of references to climate change–and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Recently, a regular reader of this blog shared an article with me that detailed a much more thoroughgoing effort to make language a tool of the Trump administration.

Consider us officially in an Orwellian world, though we only half realize it. While we were barely looking, significant parts of an American language long familiar to us quite literally, and in a remarkably coherent way, went down the equivalent of George Orwell’s infamous Memory Hole.

The author detailed her experience putting together an academic program on immigration. She had invited participation from the administration, and immediately ran into a maze of requirements. No ICE representative’s presentation could be taped, and the word “refugee” had to be removed from the description of a panel discussion.

The reason given: the desire to get through the administration approval process in Washington without undue delay. It’s not hard to believe that the administration that wanted to slow to a standstill refugees coming to the U.S. didn’t have an allied urge to do away with the very word itself. In order to ensure that ICE representatives would be there, the organizer reluctantly conceded and so the word “refugee” was dutifully removed from the program.

As the author noted, it made her wonder how many others had been similarly strong-armed, how many other words had been removed from various programs, and how much official rhetoric has gone unrecorded.

The very idea that the government can control what words we use and don’t at a university-related event seems to violate everything we as a country hold dear about the independence of educational institutions from government control, not to mention the sanctity of free speech and the importance of public debate. But that, of course, was in the era before Donald Trump became president.

Most of us who are concerned about the environment are aware of Trump’s assault on science and climate data. The Department of Agriculture has excised the very word “climate change” from its website, substituting “weather extremes,” and changed the phrase “reduce greenhouse gases” to “increase nutrient use energy.”

We may be less aware of other areas where language has been manipulated. When the subject is government helping the less fortunate or combatting discrimination, the changes have been striking:  excluded vocabulary includes “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “fetus.”

Given the Administration’s preference for “alternative facts,” we shouldn’t be surprised  that the phrases “evidence-based” and “science-based” have also been discarded.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services dropped “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement.

Ben Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development ditched the terms “free from discrimination,” “quality homes,” and “inclusive communities” in favor of a mission that supports “self-sufficiency” and “opportunity.”

The State Department deleted the word “democratic” from its mission statement and downplayed the notion that the department and the country should promote democracy abroad. In its new mission statement, missing words also included “peaceful” and “just.”

The article gives many more examples, including the (particularly chilling) fact that the Department of Justice removed the portion of its website devoted to “the need for free press and public trial.”

The United States described by the substituted language is very different from the country most of us recognize. And that, as the author says, is the purpose. After all, language creates our realities.

It might be worth reflecting on the words of Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister for Hitler’s Nazi Party. He had a clear-eyed vision of the importance of disguising the ultimate goal of his particular campaign against democracy and truth. “The secret of propaganda,” he said, is to “permeate the person it aims to grasp without his even noticing that he is being permeated.”

Or perhaps “infested.”

Point Well Taken…

One of the websites I visit regularly is Talking Points Memo. Its editor, Josh Marshall, was a conventional journalist before establishing the online equivalent of a news site devoted to government and politics, and he employs staff reporters who are equally professional and credible.

In a recent column, Marshall reported on his participation in a CNN segment, and made a point about the accusation that this President routinely violates democratic norms–an issue that has certainly concerned me, and that has been a focus of criticisms leveled by numerous political scientists.

Marshall says we need to stop talking so much about norms.

But we need to stop talking so much about “norms”. And it’s not just CNN. The term has come up a number of times in our editorial conversations at TPM just today. I’ve talked about them. But we need to stop talking so much about norms. Because it doesn’t capture what is happening or the situation we’re in. In every kind of communication, clarity is the most important thing. By talking so much about “norms” and the violation of “norms” we’re confusing the situation and even confusing ourselves.

“Norms” aren’t laws for a reason. They are like bumpers on the roads of our civic and political life which are there to keep people of basically good faith from crossing lines they shouldn’t cross. They can also be warning posts so others can see when someone is either going down a bad path or needs to be brought back into line.

As Marshall says, that isn’t what ought to worry us.

But the problem with almost everything President Trump is doing today is not that he’s violating norms. The problem is that he is abusing his presidential powers to cover up his crimes and his associates’ crimes. Full stop. That’s the problem. The norms are just the orange rubber cones he knocked over when he drove out of his lane and headed for the crowded sidewalk.

He makes a similar point about transactions the press usually labels “conflicts of interest.”

What we’re seeing now are not conflicts of interest. They’re straight-up corruption. It’s like “norms”. Defining “conflicts of interest” is meant to keep relatively honest people on the straight and narrow or create tripwires that allow others to see when people in power are crossing the line. Nothing like that is happening here. We have an increasingly open effort to make vast sums of money with the presidency. It’s happening in front of our eyes, albeit not quite as visibly as the coverup.

Marshall’s point is important. The use of terminology that may have been entirely appropriate when applied to less venal political actors only serves to muddy the waters when we are dealing with unambiguously criminal behavior.

I understand the reluctance; we’ve never had an administration ignore the law this blatantly and proudly. But that’s what we have now, and refusing to accurately label what is obvious to anyone who is looking is akin to aiding and abetting.

Words, Words, Words…..

In My Fair Lady, Eliza sings “Words, words, words–I’m so sick of words…” Instead, she demands, “show me.”

These days, the way politicians use and misuse words is quite enough to “show” us.

Multiple media outlets have reported on the administration’s recent instructions to the CDC, forbidding the use of certain words in official communications. As an article from the Chicago Tribune reports,

Trump administration officials are forbidding officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases – including “fetus” and “transgender” – in any official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

Shades of Rick Scott’s edict banning the phrase “climate change” from Florida’s official vocabulary! (Unfortunately for the state, forgoing use of the phrase hasn’t stopped the water from rising…Damn pesky reality!)

This new mandate would be funny if it weren’t one more piece of (whoops!) evidence that government under Trump is unconcerned with (that word again!) evidence–or fact, or science, or–let’s be honest–anything we would recognize as actual governing.

As ridiculous and worrisome as this effort at Newspeak is, the apparent reason for the language ban is even more troubling. The emphasis on “alternative” language appears to be focused on the budget.

The ban is related to the budget and supporting materials that are to be given to CDC’s partners and to Congress, the analyst said. The president’s budget for 2019 is expected to be released in early February. The budget blueprint is generally shaped to reflect an administration’s priorities.

The New York Times report on this directive suggests that the reason for banning these phrases from the budget document is to increase the likelihood that Congress will respond positively to that budget–in other words, it’s an effort to avoid riling the anti-science, anti-evidence GOP Neanderthals who currently dominate Congressional lawmaking.

Given the amount of attention this ham-handed effort has attracted, it isn’t likely to be very effective. Far more terrifying–and sinister–is a quiet venture meant to distort and confuse the definition of “science” and the rules of “economics,” aimed squarely at current and prospective members of the judicial branch. (Evidently, packing the courts with know-nothings isn’t the only Trumpian assault on the courts.)

In early October, 22 state and federal judges hailing from Honolulu to Albany got a crash course in scientific literacy and economics. The three-day symposium was billed as a way to help the judges better scrutinize evidence used to defend government regulations.

But the all-expenses-paid event hosted by George Mason University’s Law & Economics Center in Arlington, Virginia, served another purpose: it was the first of several seminars designed to promote “skepticism” of scientific evidence among likely candidates for the 140-plus federal judgeships Donald Trump will fill over the next four years.

The lone science instructor was Louis Anthony Cox Jr, a risk analyst with deep industry ties whose recent appointment as chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s clean air scientific advisory committee drew condemnation in public-health circles. Since 1988, Cox has consulted for the American Petroleum Institute, a lobby group that spent millions to dispute the cancer-causing properties of benzene, an ingredient in gasoline, and is now working to question the science on smog-causing ozone. He’s also testified on behalf of the chemical industry and done research for the tobacco giant Philip Morris.

What was that line Humpty Dumpty uttered in Alice in Wonderland? “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.”

I know it’s still morning, but I need a drink.