Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Political seduction by co-opting words

Pick a word, ideally one that refers to a concept or condition but not a thing. The word has to evoke a strong automatic emotional response. Best if its meaning is not well understood by the general population or can have varying meanings.

“Puppy” evokes the positive emotion, but it is too concrete.

“Health”, “happiness”, and “love” are good candidates for being co-opted. “Justice” is even better, as everyone is in favor of it, yet few have a clear notion of what it means. It’s one of those “know it when you see it” abstractions that few people can put to words. Heck, Plato didn’t have a clear definition and devoted several of his works to describing what he meant by “justice” and a “just society” without arriving at a simple statement of what the terms mean.

“Fascism” is one of the best of the co-opted words. “Fascism” evokes disgust, almost universally among Americans and Western Europeans, though few know much about it – how it arose, it’s doctrines, how it is fundamentally socialist, its similarities with Bolshevism, how it was admired by FDR and, perhaps, Woodrow Wilson. This ignorance adds to its value: people who don’t know what it means aren’t going to notice that the label has been applied to things that are not fascist or are even anti-fascist.

Meaning is forgotten, only emotion remains
If enough people loudly apply the term “fascist” to something they don’t like long enough, the negativism of the term will rub off on the target. If enough college students and professors and public intellectuals call a mother’s love fascist, without anyone calling them on the lie, eventually some of the public will view a mother’s love as a bad thing.

Behold! “Fascism”, a weasel-word: a word used to create the illusion of a clear and direct meaning, used with deliberate imprecision to mislead the audience into believing things contrary to evidence or fact. Allegedly, a weasel can suck out the contents of an egg while leaving the egg looking intact. A weasel word is the result of something sucking the meaning out of a word, leaving it a hollow shell but with the emotional content intact.

(It isn’t the word that is the weasel, it is the user.)

“Freedom” and “democracy” may be the two most powerful positive weasel words for Americans. As expressed in an old Star Trek episode, these are worship words. If you can stick “freedom” and “democracy” onto something involving dictatorship and slavery, a great many Americans will reflexively favor it.

So, the enemies of liberty regularly adopt the word “freedom” as if it were their very own and claim they are promoting democracy of some sort.

Sorry, Charlie; democracy is a method of making decisions about laws, it is not synonymous with liberty, though our founders recognized that a constitutional republic based on democratic principles was the best government for preserving liberty over the long term. Those who founded the United States worked very hard to prevent it from becoming a democracy, a society in which each person was entirely ruled by everybody else. The Presidents Bush regularly used the weasel-word “democracy” in referring to the Middle East, as if a majority in Iraq wouldn’t vote to exterminate some minority. Democracy without the rule of law becomes mob despotism. Democracy without limits to the power of the democratic government becomes mob tyranny.

Democracy: Good. Fascism: Bad. Few know what either of them mean. When reading or listening, try mentally substituting “good” for “democracy” and “bad” for “fascist”.

“Freedom” has a related problem I will discuss anon.

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