Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Conscience of a Progressive

Ernest Partridge

Chapter Two: 

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 fools."

Thomas Hobbes

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.

Newspeak Lives!

In “The Principles of Newspeak,” an appendix to his novel, 1984, George Orwell wrote:

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 individual. Progressive.”

Throughout our history, up to the late twentieth century, "liberal" has been an honored word, applied approvingly by our founders. George Washington, for example, wrote:

"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 general population.

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 about it.

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 methods.”3

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 dealt with.

Accordingly, the progressive should never refer to his opponents on the right as “conservatives.”

‘The Right” and “The Left”

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 streams).

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 course.

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?

Creative Dissonance.

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 strength.”

“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 practices.

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.

In Conclusion:

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."



1.     George Orwell: 1984, Signet, 1950.  p. 246.

2.    http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article4443.htm

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.

6.    Orwell, op. cit., p.  46   


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" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .