I have written before about how right wingers are much better than us at marketing. One of the places this comes up is in the weaponizing of the English language itself. Words have power, and controlling their meanings is a very powerful thing. Let me explain with a few examples.
Let’s start with a win for the good guys (and gals). I recommend reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass if you haven’t already just because they are wonderful books. But notice also the way the words gay and queer are used. Gay simply meant demonstratively happy. To be gaily festooned meant to be dressed or decorated in bright colors in celebration. When Alice said, “How very queer!”, she meant that she had noticed something odd that merited further investigation. Author Lewis Carroll was a mathematician who would have strongly believed in the value of such investigations. Carroll wanted his readers to see the value of creative thinking. But later, of course, the words gay and queer were coopted as insulting terms for homosexuality. Still later, what we now know as the gay rights movement fought to reclaim these words, and they are now used as rallying terms that denote a shared identity that is worth fighting for. We still need to remind ourselves of this history when we read Lewis Carroll, but the words are no longer weapons of hurt.
Now consider the word liberal. It was once an honorable thing to be a liberal. The word means generous and inclusive. Liberal arts is a term for an education that is broad based, encompassing many disciplines and finding value in each. Likewise, as a governing philosophy, liberalism indicates the belief in a society that is broad based, finding value in all of its citizens. A liberal believes that it is the responsibility of a government to provide fairly for all of the people. We believe in a system of laws that asks the more fortunate to provide support for those who are less fortunate, for the good of all. We believe, in the wealthiest nation on earth, that we have the economic resources to take care of all of our citizens. And we believe that this is a worthy goal in the context of an elective form of government. But the right wing managed to turn “liberal” into an insult. It is no longer necessary for them to refer to “tax and spend” liberals, as they once did; this negative branding campaign got us to the present day, where the “tax and spend” part is implied. The right wingers won this language war without us firing a shot, and now we call ourselves progressives, until they ruin that word for us as well.
Conservative, on the other hand, contains the root “to conserve”. It implies a belief that economic resources are limited, and must therefore not be taken from those who worked so hard to earn them. What is being conserved is individual wealth, with no regard to the common good. Government exists only to provide services like law enforcement and the military, to further the accumulation of wealth. Put another way, the job of government is to remove uncertainties, for the benefit of what conservatives see as the natural economic order. Seen this way, it should not be difficult to create a negative branding campaign against the word conservative. In 1860, the conservative outlook would have favored the preservation of slavery, seeing abolition as a source of uncertainty. In 1930, they would have viewed the New Deal the same way. But also notice that conservatism, taken literally, can find common ground with liberalism. Today, assaults on Social Security and Medicare would increase economic uncertainty, so those who favor these assaults are not truly conservatives. Here we are on the firmest ground we have. We must stop accepting the labeling of today’s Republicans as conservatives. They seek not to conserve but to destroy. Led by Grover Norquist, they seek to drastically cut taxes on the rich not to preserve any perceived economic order but to “starve the beast”, that is, to impair the ability of the government to function at all. We should start calling these people what they are, which is right wing anarchists. The Tea Party movement named themselves after an act of terrorism that was a direct assault on the economic order of the day. It suits them, but it hardly makes them conservative. Seen this way, Trump’s embrace of neo-Nazis and Klansmen is entirely consistent with his economic priorities. The Republican Party has been going in this direction for many years; Trump is simply the first one to openly embrace this form of political anarchy. As a skilled marketer himself, he is happy to be labeled conservative by others, but he is no conservative. The word conservative implies a measure of safety that he hardly provides.
Finally, let me add my two cents regarding the word antifa. This is not a corruption of the existing language, like gay and queer. This is an attempt at branding using the coining of an entirely new word, and it must be done with care. Sure, antifa is short for anti-fascist, and who could object to that? But abbreviating this way strips the word of its meaning. As a brand, we are left with the provocation that being antifa means you are acting in a negative way; you are against something, not for anything. To see how this works, ask yourself if you would find it more appealing to be anti-abortion or prolife. Coming back to the question of who could object to being against fascism, the answer is those who feel that they are being unfairly labeled as fascists. We all saw Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables on the march in Charlottesville, but it was still a stupid thing for her to say during the campaign, because it made a much larger segment of the population feel that she had written them off. Antifa contains the same danger. If you leave it to me, I would let the term antifa die, and replace it with a word that says what we are for, not what we are against. Antifa pushes people away, at a time when we need a word that invites them to join us.
Words matter. We must be clear not only about what we want to say, but also how we say it. Queer and gay show that the language wars can be won, and that it is worth the fight. We must reclaim liberal, and insist on accuracy in the use of conservative. In coining new words, we must take care not to create weapons that can be used against us. We have enough to do defending the language we already have.
A song that asks, “What are words worth?” is my obvious choice this week: