Language as a Political Tool

I always recall the statement by the renowned international anti-euthanasia activist Rita Marker that “verbal engineering precedes social engineering.” Even a quick examination of current controversies in the socio-political arena provides abundant confirmation of this.

One obvious current example is how the defenders of virtually uninhibited immigration or open borders choose readily to ignore that massive numbers of people are in outright violation of the law by referring to them as “undocumented immigrants” instead of “illegal aliens”—even while it’s not clear what “undocumented” means. The aim, of course, is to make it seem like these people have done nothing against the law and to create a different picture in the public mind—as part of a political propaganda war—than what is the reality.

The manipulation of language has been a significant feature of the fifty-odd years of the abortion wars. Early on, the pro-abortionists frequently used the term “blob of tissue” to dehumanize the unborn child and thereby try to put down the obvious moral objections and claims that there was a right to life. After science made the “blob of tissue” claim increasingly difficult to sustain, we haven’t heard it so much as the justifying rhetoric shifted to “choice” and “freedom to choose.” “Choice,” of course, generates an approving ring in a culture ever more fixated on rights and with a deepening individualistic ethos. Opposing choice immediately puts one on the defensive, putting the onus on him to justify himself.

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While people seem hardly to have noticed, terminology helped at an early stage to legitimize the effort to mainstream homosexual behavior. The use of the term “gay” to refer to male homosexuals entered the American lexicon in the 1970s and quickly became the new term to universally identify them and their sexual behavior. Most people previously had understood the term to mean spritely, lively, full of fun, and exhuberant. While it’s not clear that the usage of this term was deliberately intended by the early homosexualist movement to help advance their agenda, it likely had that effect—and they certainly didn’t discourage it. In fact, some in that movement now claim that the term “homosexual” is almost the equivalent of a racial slur. It’s likely that a term that people associated with a joyful attitude was going to affect people’s conception of homosexuality and their reaction to it. Even if not intended, “gay” fit well into the homosexualist movement’s agenda and helped advance their cause. It also provided cover for the ugliness of homosexual behavior that had traditionally caused people to recoil from it, and also for its physical and psychological consequences, AIDS, and all the rest. Some groups deliberately highjacked other terms to try to legitimize homosexuality, as seen with the name of the (supposedly) Catholic pro-homosexualist organization Dignity.

Speaking of dignity, we see its proponents of euthanasia routinely using verbal manipulation to reshape thinking. This obviously explains why someone like Rita Marker is so attuned to it. At the forefront is the claim that what is sought is simply “death with dignity” (cultural radicals seem to like to grab onto the term “dignity”). The attempt obviously is to create sympathy in the mind of the hearer. Although no one is quite sure what “death with dignity” means, it sounds right. After all, doesn’t everyone want his dignity to be upheld, even more so when he is close to the point where his earthly existence will end? This, of course, obscures the fact that what’s involved is someone deliberately killing an innocent person, or aiding the person to kill himself. The euphemism aims to make one forget that this is the very definition of murder.

Then, there’s the question of simply redefining or delegitimizing basic terms—even very basic ones—as a way of changing, even radically, people’s attitudes and to further an ideological agenda. Nowhere has this been seen more clearly for some decades than with the feminist movement. While even the crudest of four-letter words have gone completely mainstream, the feminists have demonized the three-letter words “man” and “men.” Even though the first definition of “man” in the dictionary—at least in the pre-political correctness era—was human being or homo sapien, suddenly that didn’t matter. The generic use of “man” or “men” was suddenly out, and we now all had to say “person” or “people.” Suddenly, one was left wondering if the signers of the Declaration of Independence were not hopelessly ignorant by saying that “all men are created equal”—despite the fact that if they had not vigorously asserted the imperative of natural rights, women’s rights would probably never have had a chance.

Even the Catholic liturgy fairly quickly had to catch up to the new feminist-induced linguistic Weltanschauung. The imprecision—not that it mattered to feminists—was striking: at law a “person” can be a man, woman, child, corporation, unincorporated association, partnership, etc. So, I used to quip that while I could identify what a man and a woman were—at least in the era before we were told that gender was somehow fluid—I couldn’t recognize a person. Indeed, it is likely that the feminist effort to obliterate gender distinctness—making us all amorphous “persons”—helped pave the way for the transgender fanaticism of today, even though some feminists don’t like it.

As far as feminism’s contortion of the traditional meaning of language is concerned, we now see it applied in other ways to further an increasingly extreme socio-political agenda. So, as I have discussed in previous articles, the meaning of sexual harassment is open-ended, with feminists who claim it is endemic never bothering to define the term. There is now confusion even about what rape is. The Obama Department of Justice, under feminist influence, called “verbal threats” a form of “sexual violence” and, in a report addressing the supposed “rape crisis” on American campuses, included in the category of “sexual victimization” of women “general sexist remarks” made in front of them. The snarl word “sexism” was essentially invented by the contemporary feminist movement and used mightily to advance its agenda by intimidating others, especially males. Again, though, what it means is never clearly defined and it’s the movement itself that determines the meaning of sexism.

Probably no word in the U.S. nowadays is as toxic, and potentially damaging to those it’s leveled at, as “racism.” Anyone who reads the news should be able to see that it is now almost devoid of serious meaning. It is routinely used to embarrass people (usually Caucasians), after race-baiters stoke up a social media frenzy, following incidents that just happen to involve persons of different races even if there is no racial motive involved. Is it truly racism, for example, when certain businesses are concerned about being victims of crime by, say, young male members of certain demographic groups when there is a disproportionate level of criminal activity among them? Or else the word “racism” is used to help advance political agendas, such as with claims that requiring people to produce identification when going to vote so as to maintain the integrity of elections is inspired by racism.

For some people, it is even racist to use the term “Negro” or “American Negro.” I guess they had better tell that to the United Negro College Fund and the National Council of Negro Women and also be prepared to call Martin Luther King, Jr. a racist, since that was the term he always used. Not much can be done about the racial opportunists, but maybe those who are ignorant of the history of race relations in America, and so are ready to find racism in every little thing or word or phrase, should try to educate themselves about what genuine race prejudice and oppression was like in the Jim Crow South. How much the term “racism” has been convoluted can be seen in the claims that a concern about threats from elements within Muslim communities—despite our being in an era of Islamist terrorism—is “racist.” The last time I checked, Islam was a religion, not a race. It helps leftist, secular propagandists in their efforts to support Islam as a way of obliterating what remains of Christian civilization to be able to tar anything critical of it as an example of that universally loathed thing called “racism.”

Finally, we see the misuse of language—sometimes with a political or cultural revisionist motive in mind—in the way certain demographic groups are identified. So, American Indians are now routinely called “Native Americans” (even though the term is not widely accepted even within this demographic group). This designation apparently had its origins among some cultural commentators in the second half of the twentieth century and then some in the federal government jumped on the bandwagon. The term is inaccurate because the anthropological evidence is that the first settlers came to the Western Hemisphere from Asia; there were no indigenous (i.e., native) peoples here. It also raises a question from the standpoint of Catholic doctrine, which holds that the entire human race came forth from one man and one woman and people did not spring up spontaneously in different places. One wonders if it was inspired, at least to some degree, by a desire to denigrate the European role in settling the New World and make it seem like they were somehow interlopers. It also perhaps suggests that everyone else outside of this demographic is “less American” than they are. In that sense, it slightly rings of an earlier misuse of the term “native” when Catholic ethnic groups were thought by nativists to not be true Americans.

What should people do who are concerned about this endemic problem of twisting and distorting language to promote untruth, reshape people’s thinking in an undesirable way, and promote troublesome social, cultural, and political agendas? Simply don’t go along with it even when it has become de rigueur and, more, speak up to tell others why they shouldn’t and explain what’s wrong with it—maybe even write letters to the editor about it. In an age when we desperately need to restore sound culture, this is a way that the rank-and-file who want to work to get things back on the right track can have a small but, perhaps over time, decisive effect.

(Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)


  • Stephen M. Krason

    Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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