The liberal language problem

As I’m a fairly voracious consumer of news from all sources (including sites like Brietbart and Daily Kos. Yes I know, but I think it’s important to know what people I disagree with are going to say and why (and even empathize with them! (Also, yes I know))), I’ve noticed a very distinct and rather alarming trend on both the right and the left.

The right, for all its race baiting and sexism and classism (not from everyone and everywhere on the right, mind you, but I can say, fairly objectively, from significant portions) does an excellent job strategizing and packaging its language to be palatable to people who aren’t virulently racist or sexist or classist (if your gut reaction is to argue with me on this point aka “all Trump voters are racists and sexists,” I’m talking directly to you with this post), but aren’t active combatants in the identity politics crusade either. Frank Luntz (whose book “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” would be useful, if painful, reading for many liberal strategists/organizers) and people like him have been instrumental on this front, transforming right wing rhetoric into snappy phrases and sound bites like “job creators,” and “death tax,” and “hardworking taxpayers.” By coding their right wing language in acceptable-sounding verbiage, the GOP is able to a) package their material in voter-friendly dressing and b) soften the resistance to their more extreme ideas by making them sound less extreme. Saying, “We want to empower job creators,” is way more acceptable to most voters than, “We want to give capitalists more power.”

The left, on the other hand, has gone the other direction on the language issue, particularly in the realm of identity politics. For many liberals, language is now a tool to prove ideological purity, as in if you don’t use the right nouns and pronouns and verbs and adjectives in the exact right order when talking about the exact right thing, you could very easily be called a racist or sexist or ableist or ageist or speciesist or classist or homophobic or transphobic or or or etc etc etc. My argument isn’t to police anger (an important phrase), erase lived experiences (another important phrase), or do anything else to tell people they’re wrong in what they’re feeling (which has replaced research and evidence in many arguments). I’m aware I’m a cisgendered white male who has duly checked his privilege, and I promise I’m not pointing out these things to make fun of the concepts or deny their importance (though saying all this does feel like going through an elaborate ritual before anyone will listen to anything I’ll say, more style and checking the block on key words and phrases than actual meaning or substance). I believe they are important and should be discussed and debated. However, when it comes to building coalitions and winning elections, using this esoteric language, which is itself ripped from the pages of important, peer-reviewed academic articles discussing the construction of identities and used out of context in pop-culture and a toxic and bullying call-out culture on social media, is detrimental to our efforts.

For example, if I want to talk to someone I don’t know about what sort of movies they like, I’m probably not immediately going to start talking about the use of shot and reverse shot in Citizen Kane or the meaning of the different lighting methods Bergman used in Seventh Seal and how they reinforce his themes of existential dread…or whatever. I’m probably going to start by asking them what sort of movies they like and tailor my language and subjects to their responses. The same goes for political rhetoric. People are going to commit “microaggressions” during conversations in which you’re trying to educate them or discuss politics. That’s a fact not because they’re overtly racist or sexist or all the other –ists (usually), but rather because the concept of a “microaggression” isn’t particularly well disseminated or explained throughout our electorate (and also sometimes the term “microaggression” gets expanded to mean “anything that makes me uncomfortable or I disagree with”…which is itself a whole other subject) Beginning the education process on where you’re coming from and you’re lived experiences and you’re perspective can’t start way down the road after your own long journey of experiences and reading and learning for someone with little prior education or exposure to the subject; it has to start at the point where you can find commonality.

This isn’t what’s happening. Instead, liberals are insisting on using a very strict structured language system with shame and penalties for making a mistake, regardless of the circumstances or background of the person who makes those mistakes. Rather than tailoring terms, understanding, or empathizing with their audience, liberals are demanding everyone they engage with already have substantial knowledge of these concepts, and then even go so far as to claim that a lack of knowledge inherently implies prejudice. It’s rather revealing when someone going to an Ivy League school, or really any school, looks out on America’s roiling, underemployed, and vulnerable rust belt electorate and tells someone to, “Check their privilege.” White privilege is absolutely a thing and must be discussed, but so is access privilege, networking privilege, economic privilege, booksmarts privilege, and opportunity privilege. Discussing privilege and oppression isn’t about a competitive ranking system and who goes where in some cosmic list; it’s about being able to empathize with other people and understanding how certain systems, constructs, or cultural norms in our society are negatively impacting them. It seems many liberals have lost sight of this idea in their pursuit of the oppression Olympics.

By using language as a) a bludgeon to proclaim moral superiority or outrage, b) the “final word” in discussions where the assumption is that if anyone disagrees even slightly, they are morally impure and must be shamed into submission, and c) an elitist academic taunt when speaking to someone with plenty of other skills and smarts, just not in that particular academic field, liberals are ceding the wide and deep American middle-ground to conservatives who will happily gobble-up those voters with their tailored rhetoric and faux empathy.

The strategy of hoping the other side will say something offensive or forget to use their coded language so that voters will see the right wing in the same way liberals see them is not proactive; it’s passive and dependent on an opponent’s mistakes. Self-righteous anger wielded through the scythe of identity politics feels like, and might be, the morally correct path to take when an enemy is defined as “too heinous to reason with”. However, by applying this broad stroke to such a wide swath of our electorate, rather than the smaller percentage that would better reflect reality, we alienate potential allies, a term I would like to redefine as “someone who generally agrees with us,” rather than its current form of “someone who says exactly what we want them to say.”

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