The Language Trap
|“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you
can make words mean so many things.
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty,
“which is to be master -- that’s all.”
Carroll: Through the Looking Glass.
The Right has not only captured all branches of our government and much of our media, it has also largely succeeded in defining the terms of our political discourse. Thus, a progressive who engages in political debate while failing to appreciate this fact and to deal with it, is vulnerable to serious tactical errors. The progressive is thus, in effect, carelessly agreeing to “play the game” in the opponents’ ball-park and by the opponent’s rules. Accordingly, casual and uncritical use of terms such as “liberal” and “conservative,” and “right” and “left,” as they have come to be understood in the mass media and thence in everyday conversation, leads one carelessly to concede some of The Right’s basic assumptions. Sadly, most well-intentioned liberal politicians and pundits seem to be unaware of this, and have therefore fallen into the semantic trap. They need not and should not do so.
The language trap should be familiar to progressives. Noam Chomsky has sounded a warning for years, and George Lakoff's work on “framing” has received a great deal of well-deserved attention. And yet, amazingly, progressives continue to fall into the right-wing traps, carelessly applying The Right’s preferred self-description “conservative” (it isn’t), and referring to themselves with the much maligned word, “liberal.” It is past time for the progressives to regain control of the English language. After all, it’s their language too.
George Orwell gave us fair warning of how language can be used as a political weapon. In the appendix to his novel, 1984 (“The Principles of Newspeak”) he writes:
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the [Party's] world-view and mental habits ... , but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought - that is, a thought diverging from the principles of [the Party] - should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words, and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings... .Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought...
One must suppose that former History professor (and ousted
GOP House Speaker), Newton Gingrich, Ph.D, had Orwell’s “Newspeak” in mind,
when he concocted the infamous GOPAC memo,
“Language: A Key Mechanism of Control”.
“Conservative” and “Liberal.”
The progressive opposition must break the habit of applying the word “conservative” to the right wing – except with “warning quotes” or with such qualifiers as “so-called” They must do so because (so-called) “conservatives,” aren’t. That is to say, the historically conventional meaning of the word “conservative” does not apply to the program and dogma of the self-described “conservatives” of today’s right-wing.
Here’s how Webster’s Unabridged (Second Edition) defines “conservative.”
The practice of preserving what is established; disposition to oppose change in established institutions and methods.
Up to the time of Barry Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964,
“conservatives” had traditionally advocated small government,
non-interference with personal lives, distrust of centralized federal power,
fiscal responsibility (i.e., balanced budgets), restrained influence and use
of the military, a judiciary guided by precedent, non-aggressive foreign
policy, due process of law, and the protection of and adherence to the
Constitution and Bill of Rights.
A moment’s reflection will confirm that all of these traditional precepts of “conservatism” have been openly violated by the self-described “conservative” Republican party and the self-described “conservative” administration of George W. Bush.
And yet, having discarded the content of “conservatism,” The Right steadfastly retains the label.
But where The Right leads, the progressives need not follow. Instead, the progressives should refer to The Right as “the regressives” with the hope that the term will soon “catch on” in political discourse. Fortunately, I am not alone with this proposal. (See Green, Podvin, Terich and Spivak).
The Right is “regressive,” in the sense that their program
proposes to take us back, economically, to a time before The New Deal, and
even before the Progressive reforms of Theodore Roosevelt – back to the late
nineteenth-century Gilded Age” of unrestrained capitalism. With their
rejection of the separation of church and state, of due process of law and
of Constitutional guarantees of civil liberties, there are some regressives
who would take us back to before the founding of our Republic.
The trouble with (the word) “Liberalism.” In numerous public opinion polls, when a sampling of American voters are asked to identify their political persuasion as “conservative,” “moderate” or “liberal,” the answers generally appear in that order – with “conservative” first, and “liberal” a poor third.
And yet, when that sampling of American citizens are asked their opinions as to the content (with the word “liberal” discretely hidden), most liberal programs come out well ahead. Specifically, most Americans support public education, progressive taxation, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, environmental protection, civil rights for minorities, non-discrimination for minorities and women, the United Nations, and the observance of international law.
So it appears that the decades of unrelenting media attacks on the word “liberalism” have had a telling effect. And yet public support of the program of liberalism has survived quite well.
It follows that The Right has attacked a “straw man” – a caricature – as “the liberals” have been falsely identified as “bleeding hearts,” anti-guns and anti-God. And Ann Coulter has no hesitation in condemning liberalism as “treason.”
Once again, Webster’s Unabridged tells us how far the propaganda of The Right has strayed from conventional American English usage. For there, we find the following definition of “Liberal:”
From the latin, liberalis – of or pertaining to a freeman. Favoring reform or progress, as in religion, education, etc.; specifically, favoring political reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom for the individual. Progressive.
That definition rather nicely characterizes the aforementioned liberal
In the face of The Right’s smearing of the good name of “liberalism,” what is the poor liberal to do? Many worthy liberals are determined to restore the word “liberalism” to its rightful place as a respectable and respected term of political discourse. While I sympathize with the sentiments that motivate such effort, I can not recommend it. There are far more important battles to wage. While the liberal program is worthy of defense, the label “liberal” has been irredeemably besmirched by the decades of right-wing assault. Far better to shed the label, like a soiled garment, and protect the program by awarding it a new label: “progressive.” “Liberalism” is a mere word – it’s the program that matters. For, as fair Juliet wisely asked, “what’s in a name? – a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
And so I propose that henceforth the word we apply to the tradition and program of the left, should be “progressive.”
‘The Right” and “The Left”
What, then, of the familiar political labels, “the left” and “the right.”
These terms have also been distorted in recent political discourse, and pose problems for the progressives. The origin of the dichotomy is unremarkable and politically neutral: the terms were originally derived from the seating in the early nineteenth-century French Assembly of Deputies. But today, “left” is associated with Socialism and Communism, and the word connotes “sinister.” (Old English and Old French, “sinistre” – on the left hand). In contrast, “the right” connotes, well, “right” – i.e., good, proper, even “righteous.” I have often been told that it is no accident that “conservatism” is referred to as “the right.” In fact, it is exactly that: an accident. And yet the right/left terminology bears a moral connotation, to the disadvantage of “the left.”
For all that, I believe that the terms should be retained, albeit cautiously, for they serve an essential function in political discourse for which there is no available substitute. In the jargon of analytic philosophy, “right” and “left” function denotatively. They indicate ("point to”) individuals, groups, organizations, the unifying qualities of which (“designations”) might be difficult or even impossible to enumerate. For example, “the right” refers to libertarians, free-market absolutists, neo-conservatives, and many (most?) Christian fundamentalists. What, if anything, can be said to be common to all these, other then their self-identification as members of “the right”?
We end as we began: with a recognition that the regressive-right has selected, and still worse, defined, the pivotal vocabulary of today’s political debates. Accordingly, if the progressive-left continues to accept this vocabulary intact and uncritically, with all morally charged and historically inaccurate connotations, then the progressives will engage in these debates at great disadvantage, for by so doing they will have conceded without warrant many of the hidden assumptions and much of the agenda of The Right. In George Lakoff's words, they will have been "framed."
Just as The Right has chosen the terms of their debate, the left is equally entitled to choose its own. Furthermore, the left has the advantage that their chosen vocabulary has a foundation in the established usage of the English language.
The upshot proposal: (a) Maintain the “right/left” distinction, but cautiously. (b) Reject The Right’s historically inaccurate self-description of “conservative,” and refer to The Right as “The Regressives.” (c) Drop the abused word “liberal” and replace it with “progressive.”
Many additional words appropriated by The Right deserve careful scrutiny – among them, “freedom,” “liberty,” “rights,” not to mention the Orwellian labels for the Bush programs: “clear skies,” “healthy forests,” “compassionate conservatism,” “no child left behind,” “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” But an analysis of “conservative/regressive” and “liberal/progressive” – the basic terms of political identification – is a good place to begin.
(Excerpt from the opening chapter of a book in progress: “Conscience of a Progressive” )
Copyright 2005, by Ernest Partridge
Conscience of a Progressive: A book in progress.
Partridge's Scholarly Publications. (The Online Gadfly)
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers".