Rant: The Insidious Power of Political Code Phrases

Angry MobWe all use language as weapons and we’re victims of political code phrases that manipulate and distort. One classic example is the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist. Or the battle of pro-life vs. pro-choice. What does “Wall Street” mean these days? We speak in codes and use words as weapons.  And I ask you to step back for a brief pause, and consider some new code. The power of language matters.

Jihadist vs. Muslim or Islam

Take this test: Take the more aggressive anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic statements in national politics over the last few months, and substitute the world “jihadist” for either “Muslim” or “Islamic.” See what happens to the statement. Doesn’t it improve the discussion notably?

If you use the word “jihadist,” you are talking about people who are deadly enemies to us an billions of other people, most nations, and most societies in the world.

If, on the other hand, you use the words “Muslim” or “Islamic” instead, then you make 1.6 billion people your enemy, and you are making their faith the delimiter. Then you’ve fallen into the trap of letting fear override principle. When you are talking specifically about politics and policy in this country, if you suggest policies based on religion you’ve lost track of what we stand for. Religious freedom is probably our most hallowed principle. That’s what got the pilgrims into those boats.

Bigotry vs. “politically incorrect” 

Our usage has devolved to cloaking bigotry as merely “not politically correct” or “not PC.” People should be ashamed to espouse racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious hatred; but lately, if they just refer to so-called political correctness, they aren’t. They treat “not PC” as simply honest, or, worse still, failing to fall victim to some useless conventions.

How did this happen? When did we let these code word trivialize bigotry?

The meaning devolved. It started a couple of decades ago with comedians – Bill Maher and Jeff Foxworthy come to mind immediately – making fun of what they called political correctness. We all understood, back then, that they were poking fun at exaggerations, or so it seemed; but we didn’t think they were seriously advocating bigotry.

Fast forward to now, and the usage is often cloaking bigotry now. It’s as if discrimination against Mexicans, Muslims, LGBT, and others is okay if you just call it “not PC” and give it a wink and a nod. For my two cents, I’d like to live in a society in which ethnic, racial, or religious slurs are still inappropriate. And I worry that we’re sanitizing them.

Clean Air and Water vs. Bureaucracy and Red Tape

One thing all politicians agree on is that they all favor small business and oppose bureaucracy and red tape that affects small business. That’s as universal as motherhood and apple pie. On the other hand, if you don’t have bureaucracy and red rape, you don’t have clean air, clean water, industrial safety, widespread health care, maternity leave, and so on.

Portland (Oregon) was aghast a few weeks ago to discover that a couple very small businesses making colored glass for artists, located in residential neighborhoods, have been spewing poisonous gas into the local air for decades. Nobody knew. They were too small to require environmental screening. The owners weren’t evil, according to the reporting I’ve seen; they just didn’t know. And what would have made the difference here? Exactly what we call bureaucracy and red tape.

Isn’t it also true that the poisoned water in Flint MI is related to a breakdown in enforcement of rules? Now experts are saying hundreds of other cities in the US have similar problems, but we just don’t know it.

I look at this problem as a business owner. My wife and kids and I own a business that employs more than 60 people. We didn’t inherit it, either; we created it from scratch and grew it without investment.We mortgaged our house and took risks when we had to. But we also breathe the air and drink the water, and we share the community, so we never objected to tax on profits or regulations that keep the community safe.

Conclusion: The Danger of Diluting Meaning

This post is about language, not political candidates. As our U.S. politics become increasingly divisive, it’s as if we are divided into two warring armies, in trenches, tossing code phrases at each other like soldiers in trenches would throw grenades or shoot bullets. Where once we sought facts to resolve issues, now we gather around phrases that hide facts. It’s like shouting instead of talking, without the listening and reflecting that leads to common ground and shared truth somewhere in the middle.

(Image: Flickr CC by daliborlev)


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