Language wars: it all begins with subtle early skirmishes

October 27, 2006 | By | 3 Replies More

Recently on Huffpo,George Lakoff has written an important piece on the ongoing political battle to define words.

I’m keenly aware of this battle.  Here’s one way it affects me.  I do not believe in a sentient Creator.  Some would label me an atheist, but that would be horrible unfair.  Why?  Because that term has been successfully loaded with far more than lack of a belief in a traditional God.  The conservative movement has successfully defined “atheists” as strident, immoral, untrustworthy and threatening to America’s families. 

This ugly baggage is why I have embraced the term Bright. I am a “bright.”  I have a naturalistic worldview free of supernatural and mystical elements.  Does that make me threatening?  I don’t think so.  Does it make me prone to mob violence like members of many religious groups?  I would think the opposite—I have to cut my own philosophic path thorough life.  I doubtless have different politics and beliefs than many other Brights.  Narrowly construed, I’m an organization of one.  But there are certain people are perturbed with me, I’m sure, because I refuse to claim allegiance to the insecure God of the Bible and we just can’t have that.

The word battles, however, are taking place on many other fronts.

As Lakoff writes, such word battles comprise “the struggle to define our democratic principles and values. The right wing has worked for decades to alter the meanings of concepts that define our way of life.”  For instance, consider the word “liberal.” According to Lakoff, conservatives have turned the meaning of “liberal” upside down.  Lakoff invites us to consider the differences between the conservative use of “liberal” and a traditional meaning:

Conservatives: Tax-and-spend liberals want to take your hard-earned money and give it to lazy no-accounts. Latte-sipping liberals are elitists who look down their noses at you. Hollywood liberals have no family values. The liberal media twist the facts. Leftist liberals want to end the free market. Antiwar liberals are unpatriotic wimps who can’t defend our country. Secular liberals want to end religion.

Liberals: Liberty-loving liberals founded our country and enshrined its freedoms. Dedicated, fair-minded liberals ended slavery and brought women the vote. Hardworking liberals fought the goon squads and won workers’ rights: the eight-hour day, the weekend, health plans, and pensions. Courageous liberals risked their lives to win civil rights. Caring liberals have made the vulnerable elderly secure with Social Security and healthy with Medicare. Forward-looking liberals have extended education to everyone. Liberals who love the land have been preserving our environment so you can enjoy it. Nobody loves liberty and life more than a liberal.

Conservatives have waged this battle on the meaning of “liberal” so successfully that many liberals have shed the term “liberal” and, instead, adopted alternate terms such as “progressive,” to avoid deeply-rooted derogatory connotations.

In his essay, Lakoff also considers other politically important terms.  Consider, for example, “National Security.  For conservatives, this issue justifies brutish violence and stomping on civil rights.  Progressives, on the other hand, don’t lose the focus that long-term security “is also threatened by climate destabilization and pollution, by our dependence on foreign energy, by the growing gap between rich and poor, and by our faltering public education system.”

For Conservatives, to have “Family Values” requires dwelling on obedience, and keeping sex within traditional marriages.  For progressives, striving for “family values” never loses sight of “empathy and responsibility for oneself and others are the core values of the family.”

The choice of the words one adopts is critical, for the reasons stated in my “Apollo 13” piece.  What start out as a minor-seeming course corrections (subtle choices of words) can run deeply and intractably over time.  Whenever we let our guard down, a banal adoption of one word rather than another can be strongly path dependent; it can (almost unconsciously) lock us into a long-term dysfunctional mindset.

The work of Lakoff is based on his writings with Mark Johnson, developed further at the Rockridge Institute.    At the Rockridge site, one may read the first three chapters of Lakoff’s latest book, Thinking Points.


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Category: American Culture, Language, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. hogiemo says:

    Context is decisive. Whichever is successful at "framing" the debate requires the other to invoke the "frame" and thereby reinforces the context as the debate goes on over time.

    The conservatives have been working for decades and spending billions to re-frame issues so as to create the perception that their stated position is what we cognitively recognize as "right" even if it is against our economic and personal self interest. Why else would any rural farmer ever support any Republican rather than string up the facist corporatist carpetbagger?

  2. Tom Clark says:

    Glad to know you have a naturalistic worldview, and therefore are a naturalist, as opposed to a supernaturalist. The name Bright has some fairly big negatives attached to it (e.g, sounds superior, condescending, etc) which naturalist avoids. But in any case, what's most important is making a naturalistic worldview – naturalism – better known as a positive, fulfilling alternative to faith.

    best regards,

    Tom Clark

    Center for Naturalism

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Tom Clark: With regard to calling oneself a "bright," I agree with the downside you point out. It sounds as though one is condescending when one announces one is a "bright." It sounds too much like claiming "I AM bright." I try to take the time to explain that this is not the meaning of the term and I refer people who inquire to .

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