Tag Archives: slogans

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.

 

Words, Words, Words…..

One of the barriers to productive political debate is language–its use and misuse.

Genuine communication–in general, not just in politics– is anything but simple. Back in “the day,” when I was a high school English teacher, discussions of grammar included a lesson on the difference between “definition” and “connotation”–between the dictionary meaning of a word, and the social or emotional “freight” it had picked up through use. (Further complicating matters, that “freight”–the negative or positive spin on a word or phrase–often varies depending upon the constituency hearing it. Think of how different ears hear “woke.”)

We all bring our individual world-views to our discussions, and those views and personal experiences become the lens through which we interpret what others are saying. Often, those interpretations are wildly different from the intended meaning–think “Defund the Police”–which is why political strategists and PR folks are so concerned with the language employed by candidates and/or commercial interests. Insisting “that isn’t what I meant” is almost always ineffective; it’s far preferable to initially frame an argument or proposition using  language that is as accurate about meaning as possible, and that will be most resistant to misinterpretation, whether intentional or unintentional.

Sometimes, partisans forget that the object should be to communicate, not simply to engage in virtue signaling.

Back in April, Governing Magazine ran an article titled ” ‘No Accountability, No Peace’: Sloganeering and the Language of the Left,” focusing on the differences in language employed by contemporary Republicans and Democrats. The author noted the “constant demand on the left” to be sensitive, to use words that are received as less hurtful. Sometimes, he wrote, this makes perfect sense. “Other times it feels like they want to fight on the wrong battlefield.”

This is not an isolated linguistic debate. It comes just after the recent overbaked argument about whether President Biden’s infrastructure plan, or parts of it, qualify as infrastructure, namely caregiving for children, the elderly and those with disabilities. Mother Jones was not alone in decrying this as a “semantic argument,” stressing the importance of Biden wanting to support women workers as part of the recovery.

But semantics do matter in politics. For years, the right has found success by putting potent, clever labels on things that help make their arguments for them: Recasting estate taxes as the “death tax,” for example, or succeeding in switching usage from the clinical description of intact dilation and evacuation to the soberingly graphic “partial-birth abortion.”

On the left, the impulse is more aspirational. You increase the power of your vocabulary by borrowing meanings, asserting that some things actually mean other, good things — that child care is infrastructure, or that housing is a human right or health care is a human right.

Give credit where it’s due: the GOP has been far more successful than Democrats in using language–words–to drive public opinion. That success has been partly due to good PR advice, but it also owes a debt to the fact that today, Republicans are far more monolithic  than Democrats, and their major goals are simpler to convey: keep my taxes low lends itself to far clearer messaging than, say, immigration reform, or even “Black Lives Matter.”

I actually think a large-scale public debate over the meaning of “infrastructure” would be  very useful. I have often distinguished between physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, the electrical grid, etc.) and what I think is accurately described as social infrastructure–the governmentally-provided social supports and services that are arguably necessary to social functioning and national cohesion.

America is rather clearly not ready for that discussion–not ready to use language for its intended purpose, which–I will reiterate– is to communicate. Far too many of us evidently subscribe to Tallyrand’s theory that “speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts.” 

“Make America Great Again” comes to mind….