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.
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.