The Language Trap: A Word about Words
||“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.”
Lewis Carroll –
Through the Looking Glass.
"Words are wise mens' counters, they are the money of
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. 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 thus, in effect, carelessly agrees to “play
the game” in the opponents ball-park and by the opponent’s rules.
Accordingly, casual and uncritical use of terms 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 to
carelessly concede some of The Right’s basic assumptions. Unfortunately,
because most well-intentioned liberal politicians and pundits seem to be
unaware of this, they have fallen into the semantic trap. They need not and
should not do so.
Language is the constant yet unnoticed current that carries our thoughts.
Thus, in the game of politics, the party which controls the language,
controls the contest.
Newt Gingrich knows this, GOP strategist Frank Luntz knows this, and George
Orwell, their apparent mentor, knew this.
So why don’t the Democrats know this?
I don’t mean to suggest that we are necessarily captive to the currents of
language. Like a skilled navigator, one can factor the currents of language
into the calculations of one’s judgment. But only if a person or a party
takes the trouble to pause and take notice of the language.
Regrettably, the Democrats have not. For a party that is allegedly preferred
by intellectuals, the Democrats have been tactically naive and stupid,
prisoners of their fruitless habits. To be sure, astute scholars such as
George Lakoff and Geoffrey Nunberg have offered the Democratic Party chiefs the keys to their jail
cells and have shown them the way out, but they have been told, in effect,
“Thanks, but no thanks.” And Noam Chomsky is regarded as “too extreme” and
an embarrassment. Never mind that he is the foremost linguist of our time.
In “The Principles of Newspeak,” an appendix to his novel, 1984, George
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...1
Orwell wrote this as a warning. The Right has apparently adopted it as
its strategy. Thus we find “Newspeak” at work in Newt Gingrich’s
self-explanatory memo, “Language as a Political Weapon.”2
And GOP strategist Frank Luntz has played the English language like Itzhak
Perlman plays his Strad.
“Liberalism,” then and now.
Consider, for example, what the word-meisters of The Right have done to
the word “liberal.”
Webster’s Dictionary gives us this traditional 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
Throughout our history, up to the late twentieth century, "liberal" has been
an honored word, applied approvingly by our founders. George Washington, for
"As mankind becomes more liberal, they will be more apt to allow that
all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are
equally entitled to the protections of civil government. I hope ever to
see American among the foremost nations of justice and liberality."
Today, however, the propaganda mills of the right, and especially the
regressive screech merchants of AM radio, cable TV, and the internet, have turned the word
“liberal” into an epithet, like a piece of rotten fruit to be hurled at the
candidate or political commentator willing to be called a “liberal.”
Remember the 2004 GOP ads? “Brie-eating, Chardonnay-drinking, latte-sipping,
French-speaking, Volvo-driving, New York Times reading, elite liberals.” The
word connotes “tax and spend,” “welfare cheats,” bureaucratic interference
in “free enterprise,” and a weak military. To Ann Coulter, it means nothing
less than “treason.”
Thus it is no surprise that when pollsters ask the ordinary citizens to
describe their political orientation, “conservative” comes out ahead,
followed by “moderate,” with “liberal” a poor third.
And yet, when the same citizens are asked their opinions on Social Security,
Medicare, environmental protection, public education, economic justice,
racial tolerance, and the separation of church and state, by substantial
majorities they endorse the traditional liberal agenda. In short, the
American public remains liberal, even though it has been persuaded to
despise and reject the word “liberal.” And that should be regarded as good
news by The Left, for it is the ideology and the program that matter.
"Liberal" is merely a word.
Recall the quotation from Orwell above:
“... a thought diverging from the principles of [the Party] - should be
literally unthinkable... 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...”
Now try to explain and defend the “liberal” ideas of Franklin Roosevelt,
Adlai Stevenson, and the Kennedys. You can no longer do so simply by
casually dropping the word "liberal" in conversation and debate. The word
“liberal” has been spoiled by the relentless assault upon it by The Right,
and thus today it has become useless and even harmful in ordinary discourse.
In Orwell’s words, right-wing propaganda has succeeded in “eliminating” this
“undesirable word,” “liberal,” thus making its original meaning simply
“unthinkable.” And there is no word available yet to take its place. So what
is the (old-definition) liberal to do? The remedy is simple: drop the word
“liberal” and give the program a new name: “progressive.” Unfortunately, it
will take some time for this new word for old ideas to take hold in the
The Right has learned its lesson well from its mentor, George Orwell.
How did it come to this? In retrospect, it is difficult to determine whether
the assault upon the word "liberalism" was calculated, or merely directed
without design at a conspicuous target of opportunity. It really doesn't
matter; it is the methodology and the consequences of this attack that
should interest us.
The success of the attack upon "liberalism," and the failure of the liberals
to defend their political label, might be attributed in part to the
respective vocations and traditions of "the offense" (the Right) and "the
defense" (the Left). Prominent defenders of "the Left" come from the
academic, legal, and scientific professions, where language is prized for
its precision and clarity. Such individuals might be understandably inclined
to apply the standards and disciplines of the seminar, the court and the
laboratory to the political arena. Accordingly, they might assume that the
purpose of political discourse is to persuade by force of confirmable
evidence and valid argument. In contrast,
"the Right," drawing from the
practical experience of commerce, seeks, not to prove, but to sell. Any
psychological device that promises to "close the sale" (i.e., persuade the
"prospect" to buy the product or to vote for "our" candidate) is fair game.
And if those devices involve the distortion of language, the pollution of
plain meaning, and the subversion of free political institutions, then so be
it. George Orwell vividly described such semantic shenanigans and gave us
fair warning. The Right, unconstrained by a "conservative" respect for the
acquired wealth of meaning in our language, follows (by design or, more
likely, by independent invention) the Principles of Newspeak: "provide a
medium of expression for the [Party's] world-view and mental habits ... ,
[and] make all other modes of thought impossible."
Who is a “Conservative.”
Imagine that you meet a visitor from abroad who is fluent in English and
well acquainted with American history. However, he knows nothing about
contemporary American politics and its rhetoric, and he is eager to learn
You explain that there are two contending political ideologies:
One ideology is out to uproot the founding documents of our republic, the
Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and take our society and
economy back to the condition it was in over a hundred years ago. The other
steadfastly endorses and defends those founding documents, and defends the
gains in economic and social justice painfully obtained throughout the
history of the American republic.
You then tell the visitor that one of these ideologies calls itself
“conservative.” Which one would he reasonably conclude that you were
referring to? If he selects the second, he is in agreement with Webster's,
which thus defines “conservative:” “The practice of preserving what is
established; disposition to oppose change in established institutions and
How then should one describe this first ideology, which advocates and
strives to achieve a return to an earlier condition of the economy and
society. Clearly “conservative” won’t do. How about “regressive.” That’s
what I’ve chosen, and I urge that you do likewise.4
If the Democrats were to adopt “regressive” to describe the policies of the
Republicans, and if they were to use the word “regressive” persistently in
their publications, speeches, and media appearances, it might have a
devastating effect on the GOP.
In fact, “liberal vs. conservative” is a false dichotomy. It is possible to
be both, and indeed a thoughtful progressive is both. Janus-like, the
progressive looks both backward and forward in time: backward, by cherishing
and preserving the priceless legacies of the past; and forward, identifying
injustices to be set right and anticipating problems that must be faced and
Accordingly, the progressive should never refer to his opponents on the
right as “conservatives.”
What, then, of the familiar political labels, “the left” and “the right.”
These too have 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).
“The right,” on the other hand, connotes, well, “right” – i.e., good,
proper, even “righteous.” As one gentleman once told me, it is no accident
that “conservatism” is referred to as “the right.” But it is, in fact, 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, as we noted earlier, “the right” refers to libertarians,
free-market absolutists, neo-conservatives, and many Christian
fundamentalists. What, if anything, can be said to be common to all these,
other than their self-identification as members of “the right”?
Wikipedia defines “doublespeak” as “language deliberately constructed to
disguise or distort its actual meaning.” (It does not appear in Orwell’s
novel, but emerged shortly after its publication in 1948, probably as a
conflation of Orwell’s “Newspeak” and “Doublethink.”) In the hands of the
GOP wordsmiths, words are often “distorted” to the point of outright
contradiction. We are all familiar with Bushista doublespeak:
“Clear Skies Initiative”. (Relaxes clean air standards for industry).
“Healthy Forests Initiative”. (Allows clear cutting in federal land).
“Clean Water” proposal. (Exempts Clean Water Act protection of 70% of US
Finally, George Bush tells us that the objective of his foreign policy is
to “spread democracy.” We’re all in favor of democracy, of course, and would
like to see it “spread.” But take a closer look. Can one really believe that
Bush wants to “spread democracy”? Apparently our foreign policy amounts to
approval of “the peoples’ democratic choices abroad” so long as they are our
choices as well. But if not, we try to impose alternative “choices.” For
example, in Palestine, Belarus, Venezuela and, yes, Iraq. In addition,
consider what Bush is doing to our democracy. As one wit put it, if the
Iraqis want a new Constitution, they can have ours -- we're not using it.
Far more subtle, and therefore insidious and seductive, are cognitive
“frames,” a concept famously brought to public attention by George Lakoff,
who describes them as “mental structures that shape the way we see the
world.” Lakoff continues:
You can’t see or hear frames. They are part of what cognitive
scientists call the “cognitive unconscious” – structures in our brains
that we cannot consciously access, but know by their consequences: the way
we reason and what counts as common sense.5
From the concept of framing, Lakoff derives this warning: “When you are
arguing against the other side: do not use their language. Their language
picks out a frame – and it won’t be the frame you want.” The Republicans are
well aware of the framing phenomenon, and use it with consummate skill. The
Democrats carelessly take the bait and fall into the GOP trap by adopting
the GOP language, with the able assistance of the mainstream media, of
Lakoff offers the example of the term “tax relief.” “Relief” suggests an
“affliction.” “And the person who takes it away,” says Lakoff, “is a hero,
and anyone who tries to stop him is a bad guy.” But Oliver Wendell Holmes
suggests a different frame: “taxes are the price we pay for civilization.”
According to this frame, taxes are the “dues” of citizenship. But you are
unlikely to encounter this frame in current political debate, not even from
the Democrats. Thus the game is lost even before it begins.
The “false dilemma” is one of the demagogues’ favorite framing devices. From
the cold war we had, “better dead than red.” (How about neither?) Today
it’s: “We’re fighting them over there so that we don’t have to fight them
over here.” (How about negotiating instead? And what evidence is there that
if we don’t “fight them over there” our enemies will immediately pack up and
set up shop in the United States?).
Another device is the “implied opposite.” The anti-abortion movement uses
this to great effect. For example, if you are not “pro-life,” then you must
be “pro-death” or “anti-life.”
“The war on terror,” a metaphor, carries a huge baggage of presuppositions.
“War” entails mobilizing the military, restricting civil liberties, and
invading other countries.. But what if we instead treated terrorism, not as
a “war” but as a “crime”? Our approach would be radically different, and
would invite international cooperation.
Finally, there is Bush’s surveillance program. Call it a “domestic
surveillance program” and it is downright un-American – Fourth Amendment and
all that. But call it the “Terrorist Surveillance Program,” a name attached
to the program after it was exposed, and, well, who can be against that?
According to the late cognitive psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg, minds
are changed and moral growth occurs when individuals are faced with dilemmas
and contradictions. The resulting discomfort (“cognitive dissonance”)
motivates one to search for new cognitive structures (“frames”) that will
resolve the dissonance. For example, moral and political dilemmas that are
irresolvable by authoritarian rule or conventional belief may be resolved
from the perspective of “the social contract.” This, in fact, was the
“solution” worked out by the framers of our republic.
Of course, cognitive dissonance can be destructive, depriving the individual
of autonomy and initiative. This was the objective of The Party’s slogans in
Orwell’s 1984: “War is Peace.” “Freedom is Slavery.” “Ignorance is
“Constructive dissonance” takes place when conventionally contrary concepts
are appropriately combined. This can “break” the frames of one’s political
adversaries and prompt them to seek other frames – perchance, yours. Here
are two examples:
When asked your political persuasion, say that you are a “conservative
progressive.” Sounds like “freedom is slavery.” But as we noted above, the
contradiction is only apparent. Change the conceptual frame, and the
contradiction is resolved.
When asked my religious orientation, I answer that I am a “secular
Christian.” But how is that possible? I reply that while I do not believe
traditional Christian theology and prefer the scientific view of the origin
of the universe, the earth, and life, I accept the ethics of Jesus of
Nazareth. Upon encountering the seemingly incoherent concept of “secular
Christianity,” one might take a fresh look at Christian ethics, and perhaps
find common ground with someone thought to be an adversary.
In sum, the wise progressive – and in particular, the progressive aspiring
to political office, or activity in the public media – should first of all
step back and identify the “frames,” which is to say the hidden assumptions
and implications of his opponents, and also of himself. Then one must refuse
to accept the language or adopt the frame of the opponent.
George Lakoff advises against attacking an opponent’s frame directly, for it
only reinforces it. Instead, the progressive should introduce and utilize
the language and frames of progressivism. Specifically, avoid the word
“liberal,” for it has been put in a negative frame by the right. Instead,
identify yourself as a “progressive,” and act aggressively to give meaning
to the word. Do not call the right “conservative.” They aren’t. They are
regressive, so use that word, repeatedly, until it begins to “stick.”
The regressives have invested millions of dollars and devoted more than
three decades to the task of establishing their agenda and policies. They
have done so through their foundations, think-tanks, media control, and now
their control of the federal government. And they have taken control of our
political language. They are formidable opponents.
For all that, they are vulnerable. The right faces an invincible adversary:
reality. Their denial of reality, which they label "faith" and "intuition,"
cannot abolish evolution or the laws of atmospheric physics and chemistry
that determine climate change. Their "faith" will not put fossil fuels in
the ground that are not there now, nor will their " faith" overcome the
inevitable economic consequences of the approaching decline in oil
production. Mitigation of the crises before us must come through scientific
research, technological development, international cooperation, and
government initiative, in contravention of regressive beliefs, policies and
Remember too that the American public still accepts the liberal agenda, even
though it rejects the word “liberalism.” But it’s only a word. Liberalism –
the program and the ideology – is distinctly and inalienably American. It is
in our founding documents. It is validated by our history of emancipation,
of scientific and technological advancement, of the improvement of the
workplace, of the emergence of the middle class, of the advancement of civil
rights, and of the emergence of the environmental movement.
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 accepts this
vocabulary intact and uncritically, with all its 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 much of the hidden assumptions and agenda of the right.
Just as the right has chosen the terms of their debate, the left is equally
entitled to choose its own.
The upshot proposal: (a) Maintain the “right/left” distinction, but
cautiously, and avoiding it whenever possible. (b) Reject the right’s
historically inaccurate self-description of itself as “conservative,” and
refer to the right as “regressive.” ( c ) Drop the abused word “liberal” and
use “progressive” in its place.
Above all: "Progressives" (formerly "liberals") had better wake up and smell
the brew; those who control the language, control the agenda - they control,
that is to say, what can and will be said in public discourse. Orwell's
inquisitor "O’Brien" saw this clearly, when he explained: "... the whole
aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make
thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which
to express it.. ."6
The progressives must reclaim their language, lest the regressives decide
for us what is to be "thinkable."
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. George Orwell:
1950. p. 246.
3. Partridge, "Conscience of a
Conservative," The Crisis Papers.
4. David Michael Green :What's In A
Name? Everything, Common Dreams, February 8, 2005.
5. George Lakoff:
Don’t Think of an
Elephant, Chelsea Green, 2004 . p. xv.
op. cit., p.