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Reclaiming the political lexicon

Peter Cuthbertson discusses the importance of concepts and semantics to defining a political meta-context

If your arguments are irrational and unconvincing, and the consequences of people listening to them harmful and destructive, then you really need to have some other factor on your side to succeed. Sadly, those who advocate socialism, statism, lilly-livered liberalism and an ever-expanding government have just this. For almost every modern political argument is conducted in a lexicon that favours them, every debate being a competition between those who can use leftist language most convincingly – usually the left, unsurprisingly.

Daniel Hannan covered this phenomenon 18 months ago in The Spectator. It isn’t that the language prevents you arguing against the left – it’s that it prevents you doing so while still sounding as kind and as decent as your opponent.

‘Greed’ now means low taxes, while c’ompassion’ means high taxes. ‘Fairness’ means state-enforced equality, while ‘unfairness’ means an individual’s right to better himself. Any discussion of the relationship between government and citizen is perforce conducted in loaded terms. You can still make the case for greater liberty, but not without sounding rather nasty.

The column in question was far more focused on the problem than solutions, though he did note that there was hope for the future. However, the fulfillment of these hopes would require conscious effort to reclaim the political vocabulary. How can we achieve this? Ayn Rand noted that one effective way to destroy a concept was to dilute its meaning so that the power of what was being described was lost in a mess of all sorts of other concepts and notions. The advantage of this approach is how easily it could be done – it is really no more than a case of using the left’s language to describe concepts that extend far beyond leftist ideals. If one can neutralise their advantage and steal the term for one’s own argument, fine. If one can associate the term with something especially bad, fine.

Take, for example, the statist use of the word ‘community’ to refer to groups of people with nought beyond some trivial quality in common.

“Opponents of racial preferences are lining up against the wishes of the black community.”


“The campaign to scrap hate crimes laws has met with howls of protests from the gay community.”

As a way of subverting individual rights, this is ingenius, because it both allows one to invent a community with rights of its own, and to define that community’s interests in terms of its self-appointed representatives.

Discussed on the individual level, racial preferences for college admissions are almost indefensible, with every beneficiary gaining at the expense of someone more qualified, for no better reason than his skin colour. Merit, hard work and achievement are all devalued in the name of racial dogma. But once such issues are discussed at the level of a black community, which has ‘historical baggage’ and is ‘owed a debt’, the argument changes completely. People aren’t seen any more as individuals with different talents and abilities, but racial proxies, whose fates can and should be determined at the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen in the name of fairness and equality between communities, rather than individuals. Every argument for an advance in group rights – and so a diminution in individual rights – usually follows such reasoning.

Or take the way ideas the left opposes are gradually being turned from legitimate political beliefs into phobias. It is as if they really think people can only disagree with them because they are mentally ill. If you oppose joining a federal European superstate, you are a europhobe or a xenophobe. If you disagree with the aims of the gay lobby, you are a homophobe. If you don’t believe that in every case “Islam means peace” you are an Islamophobe, and so on. So before the debate has even started, one then is faced with the challenge of avoiding these labels. “I’m not an Islamophobe, but I do think Islamic governments are seriously deficient in their respect for basic rights and democracy.” This is not a very effective response, because it means acknowledging right away that your own view is edging towards a psychological condition – but you are just managing to avoid falling off the edge. Yet again, the left can trump good sense simply with unsophisticated vocabulary.

So how can these terms be diluted to lose such meanings? Simply by constant repetition in other contexts and association with other things. You can write about a ‘paedophile community’ or a ‘mugging community’. You can describe terrorism as a ‘lifestyle choice’. A whole range of new phobias can be agreed on to describe everything from support for equality of outcome to opposition to tax cuts. Instead of allowing ‘choice’ to remain a euphemism for abortion, we should describe ourselves as pro-choice on every issue that the left prefers a state-mandated option, whether the debate is on educational vouchers or gun ownership.

If bloggers, those who read and post on blogs and those who debate on news and politics forums, use this language every time such issues arise, at first it will all seem like a silly and perhaps offensive private joke. But if enough people do it, it will before long become second nature, and it could slowly be relied on to enter the political lexicon every bit as much as ‘Fisking’ and ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ have already. The use of ‘community’ to disguise a removal of individual rights, or the monopoly the left claims for its support for choice, would slowly lose their effect. And if every political position is sneeringly described as a phobia, then soon such language will have no effect in making the freedom-lover appear crazy.

What we really need is an agreed glossary of words and terms to introduce into internet debates and everyday blogging. Let’s all give some thought to the best language to use to dilute the left’s vocabulary of emotional blackmail and Stalinist psychoanalysis. Anti-statists of the world unite, we have nothing to lose by giving it a shot, but we have a political lexicon to win.

14 comments to Reclaiming the political lexicon

  • kj

    Terrific idea.

  • The left accused us of that before, so it’s not all one-way. I recall considerable bitterness about the phrase ‘wealth creation’, indicating how effective its enemies found it at stymying their arguments.

    It’s no use trying to invent pre-emptive phrases for the sake of it – they have to answer a need in terms of what we argue for. But if they do that, they can be effective – at least in neutralising the flow of rhetoric in the other direction.

  • Malcolm

    The Right have already succeeding in some similar devaluations of the language, if not quite so many.

    The following counter-examples are unduly kind to both liberal and authoritarian right-wingers (or unduly pejorative to their opponents).

    Counter-example: “tax-and-spend”

    Literally used to describe someone who advocates use of taxation to acquire funds for state spending i.e. everyone except the most radical anarcho-capitalist.

    Current meaning: pejorative term used to mean “this person will tax you to the point of absolute penury, and spend the proceeds on nothing you’d ever notice, let alone benefit from.”

    Counter-example: “disabled-Welsh-black-lesbian”.

    Current meaning: stereotype of an ideal job candidate for a left-wing council, implying that it hires according to leftist bigotry rather than merit.

    Counter-example: politically correct.
    Current meaning: barking mad. c.f. “poltical correctness gone mad” (ludicrously overstated (but often self-consciously so) yet fundamentally well-founded complaint about same).

    Counter-example: Eurosceptic.
    Current meaning: person implacably opposed to EU.

    Counter-example: Guardian reader
    Current meaning: person with plenty of “compassion” but no common sense, not to be taken seriously. (c.f. “Daily Mail: see “political correctness gone mad”).

    Counter-example: Anti-Americanism
    Current meaning: any criticism of US foreign policy

    Counter-example: bureaucracy.
    Literally: organisation for administration
    Current meaning: collection of sinecures that use political dictats to impede productive output.

    The following terms are unduly kind to authoritarian right-wingers.

    Current meaning: half-way between traditional English liberties and a Stalinist police State.

    Literally: “of the people”
    Current meaning: right-wing authoritarian

    Just to stir things up, let me offer:
    Current meaning: USA, UK, Canada, Australia, NZ.
    But in practice: a couple of hundred right-wing bloggers.

    And finally, a word I coined over dinner tonight, (I’m sure haven’t heard it before, but presumably I’m not really the first to use it):

    McIraq: US cultural imperialism; OR
    McIraq: potential propagation of political freedom, capitalism and democracy in the Middle East.

    Colonise this word while it’s still terra nullius 🙂

  • Snide

    “Anglosphere”. Current meaning: USA, UK, Canada, Australia, NZ. But in practice: a couple of hundred right-wing bloggers.

    Don’t be a complete dickhead Malcolm… we have just seen the most stark proof possible that there is indeed an Anglosphere, or were you under the impression something other than the Anglosphere just kicked the living shit out of Saddam Hussain’s boys? Being ‘daring and contrarian’ just to ‘stir things up’ is no substitute for using your head. It just devalues your message as a whole.

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    I try to use the phrase “Small Tobacco” whenever I can, especially in conjunction with the phrase “Big Government” (with capital B and G). The reason is that if the cigarette makers are “Big Tobacco”, what does that make the (US federal) government, which has much larger revenues? Yet the phrase “Small Tobacco” never ceases to irritate people.

    I also try to refer to Social Security as a Ponzi scheme, especially since this is quite accurate — the money being paid into it today is being used to pay people who paid into it in the past. Yet for some reason, this too always gets statists angry.

    Finally, let’s try to use the word “equality” less and replace it with “similarity”. “Equality” seems to have connotations of fairness that “similarity” doesn’t have.

  • I think Malcolm has provided us with confirmation that this is defintely something worth pursuing.

  • Bill

    We in the “gun community” refer to ourselves as “civil rights advocates” (All of them. As enumerated in the Bill of Rights.) and to the grabbers as “hoplophobes”.
    Whenever possible, I describe the Liberal-du-jour as a moderate: Halfway between Ted Kennedy and Fidel Castro.

  • The comment from Malcolm demonstrates the arid nature of his own arguments and the potential pitfall of this approach. Through concentration on the meanings used, you may end up in a cul-de-sac of satirical pejoratives that may amuse a particular group but mean something very different to a wider public.

    Peter Cuthbertson demonstrates how the Left has been very successful in promoting group politics based upon the underlying foundation of identities: black, gay, Irish,etc. These groups structure their political agendas through a discourse of positive rights that can only be met through the actions of the state via legislation and expenditure.

    If we engage these groups on their own terms, we will lose. What is needed is an alternative grouping of philosophies that can appeal to the public sphere and undermine the ‘identity politics’ of the Left. One example is communitarianism, another is libertarianism. Some of the themes that such an agenda might employ are crystallising: personal choice and responsibility, democracy, common sense, the local etc. etc.

    Such an agenda does have the potential to reshape the public sphere and undermine the current consensus of the liberal-left. It is not just a battle over the meaning of words but a conflict over our political perceptions. That requires greater philosophical agreement, a goal that is difficult to achieve.

  • Russ Goble

    Guys, lay off Malcolm a bit. I don’t think he was being a dickhead. I think he wanted to “stir things up a bit.” I kind of took it as a half-joke. When the National Review is dedciating issues to the anglo-sphere, it is certainly beyond a few right-wing bloggers. The concept has at least started to permeate American right-wing think tanks (well-funded think tanks at that), so it’s just matter of time before it starts to make it’s way into the Republican party as a hole and into conservative foreign policy circles. So, it’s certainly beyond a few right-wing bloggers. On top of that, the left is already trying to hijack “anglo-American” as a perjorative term meaning “racists english speaking white guys.” So, the anglospere concept is growing. If you’ve read the NR article, they even note that the concept is in in it’s infancy but is catching on as a worldview. In fact, a William Safire NYT article can’t be to far off.

    Anyway, I have one suggestion that is on topic. In America at least the term neo-conservative has taken on sinister connotations. Whenever a leftist columnist uses the term, it’s meant to be accopanied by the scary organ music “dah-dah-dah-dahhhhhh”(and God forbid if he’s a JEWISH neo-conservative). So, it’s time all liberals (in the American senses) be defined as “neo-socialists.”

    It’s a fairly accurate term for the modern Democratic party’s base since they have essentially tossed aside their great history of fighting communisim and seem much more interested in kissing up to Fidel.

    Got that: “Neo-Socia-lists” (spoken like Homer Simpson saying “nu-cu-lar.”)

  • While I’m supportive of attempts to turn the rhetoric back in our favor — words are weapons, as Michael Emerling has told us — rhetoric isn’t all it will take.

    What the American public currently holds against the Left is its rampant dishonesty, which recent events have made undisguisable. By implication, a political community that’s absolutely honest at all times, including about those areas where it can’t guarantee the success of its prescriptions, would have a large edge.

    “Give the people what they want,” say the media executives. What do the people want?

    1. Honesty, especially about mistakes.
    2. Fidelity to promises.
    3. Humility — a virtue few politicians or activists possess.
    4. A reduction in their burdens — including their burden of guilt.
    5. A sense that current public problems are being handled competently.
    6. A sense that foreseeable future problems are being planned for — and with enough flexibility in the plan that surprises are unlikely to be ruinously costly.

    There are other things, but surely the above would satisfy the typical honest citizen — and who wants the allegiance of the dishonest ones?

    “You say you want to paint a perfect painting? Just make yourself perfect and then paint naturally. That’s how all the experts do it.” — Robert M. Pirsig, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.

  • Kyle Haight

    Here’s a few more counter-memes the Right has already used with some success in recent years:

    “Race preferences” as an alternative to “affirmative action”.

    “Death tax” as an alternative to “inheritance tax”.

    “Marriage penalty” as a shorthand description for the way the American tax code taxes many married couples more heavily than two single people with equivalent incomes.

    Fighting the meme war has concrete political payoffs, sometimes in surprisingly short timeframes.

  • Dale Amon

    This is where many have missed out because elements of the classical education are no longer a common part of the curricula. What you are all discussing is called “Rhetoric”, as used in a Classical sense. I had to read about it on my own as I never was given any dose of what it really was even in University.

  • Yank

    Be careful with this statement: “You can write about a ‘paedophile community’ or a ‘mugging community’. You can describe terrorism as a ‘lifestyle choice’.” The subtlety and sarcasm will be lost on the audience and the effect will shift from mocking “community” to raising mugging, paedophilia, and terrorism to legitimate-behavior status.