How to avoid the right’s toxic terminology
Something that to us might seem small, maybe even picky, is one of the most crucial, yet easiest, things we can personally do to change the discourse in our country. The right-wing learned to do this long before more progressive people.
It shouldn’t be a new idea for us because for a quarter of a century, well-known linguist George Lakoff has been crusading for its importance and explaining scientifically why it’s crucial.
Why it hasn’t caught on among people with progressive agendas is beyond me. Yet the right-wing continues to use it to commandeer the mainstream media into enforcing its frame of reference as it has for generations now. Think of how they like to call the Democratic Party “the Democrat Party” in what seems to be only a silly but intentional misnomer.
But you hear the right-wing’s ideals enforced anytime anyone uses words like “tax relief,” “pro-life,” “entitlements,” “school choice,” “parental rights,” “the homosexuals,” “the gay lifestyle,” “sexual preference,” and numerous others that they (and this too is important) repeat over and over no matter what the objections to their use or their accuracy are.
How word usage rewires the brain
As Lakoff warned us based on his extensive research on how brains really work, such usages enforce the right-wing’s way of thinking unconsciously in human brains even when they’re used by others to deny the truth of them. Their very use triggers the right-wing frame within the mind of the hearer.
A recent online discussion reminded me of this. It was the defense of the word “entitlements” for Social Security and Medicare benefits.
The poster argued accurately that those who receive them are “entitled” to them because they had paid into the system and were now collecting on their own payments. But accurate arguments about language usurped by the right-wing do not enforce the frame of reference of the progressive side if we use the language (no matter how really appropriate it is logically) of the right-wing.
In this example, the right-wing has instilled deep in the discourse with the help of the mainstream media that to be “entitled” is a feeling people have (“They feel they’re so entitled”) whether they have earned what they are entitled to or not. Think of the criticism: “Oh, they think they’re so entitled.”
To counter this, references to Social Security and Medicare must be referred to again and again — as “earned benefits.” No matter what the other side calls them, we must say “earned benefits” over and over again until the media has to explain to their audience what we are referring to by our designation.
A successful example is the progressive designation used for bills passed in Florida forbidding references to LGBTQ+ people in public education. Calling them “Don’t Say Gay” bills, and using that terminology for them consistently, took over the discourse.
There were objections about that from both the proponents of those bills and even our allies who were afraid that there was too much generalization in that designation. But — and here’s when you know you are successful — “Don’t Say Gay Bills” is still being used (no matter how the right-wing objects) and the media is re-enforcing that use when it says to its audiences: “the so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay Bills’ or “what opponents call ‘the Don’t Say Gay Bills.’ ”
Yet another successful example was renaming “same-sex marriage” (because any phrase that has the word “sex” in it in our culture is loaded with all the distress people have about any sexual activity) by replacing it with “marriage equality.”
Equality, fairness, freedom always resonate
In searching for alternatives, words like “equality,” “fair” and “freedom” always resonate with people’s deep emotions in our culture. And we should use them not just because they are a tactic but because they speak in terms of our values.
So, let’s resolve to do a small but powerful (and simple) thing as we face a new year. This involves:
- Changing our language to change the discourse.
- Never using opposition language even to deny it.
- Repeating again and again what we have to say with our choice of designation for it.
- Refusing to give in to objections to the language we use, language that reflects our values.
- Responding to criticism with the same choice of language we use no matter what.
- Forcing the media eventually to have to say “what some call…” or “so-called.”
Resolve, for example to:
- Never call anything “therapy” when following the word “reparative” or “conversion.” It is not therapy by any professional standard. Instead call it “attempted brainwashing of LGBTQ+ people.”
- Never call any religious people “literalists” about their scriptures. No one is a literalist, but using the term concedes that they are taking it literally while you are interpreting, and that means you’ve already given them the upper hand in the discussion. Everyone interprets, period! So refer to what they say as an interpretation no matter how they object.
- Start using the word “sectarian” regularly. Don’t call any right-wingers “Christian.” Whatever they, or you, mean by the word, they do not represent a thing called “Christianity” or all people who believe they qualify to fit under that designation. For example: the “Ten Commandments” they want to post are not being posted in the original Hebrew. Neither are they the versions of Roman Catholicism or most Jewish people. They are not only one English Protestant version but are probably from the King James Bible. They want to post “a sectarian version of the Ten Commandments.” Period. And their “Christian Nationalism” is also a “religious sectarian nationalism.”
- Stop calling anything “traditional.” It’s a trap and only has the value we give to it. It means nothing in itself. The right-wing has used the term in phrases such as “traditional marriage,” or “traditional values.” Tradition means picking out of history what agrees with you and ignoring everything else. Frankly most history is so varied that it does not support the idea that anything is “traditional.”
- Never say that the right-wing is “anti-democratic.” Though this is true, the word “democratic” brings up the Democratic Party in people’s minds and thus sounds partisan. Instead say they are “anti-democracy” or “anti-freedom.”
There are many more examples of how we can take back the discourse in our cultures and change its direction. But we have to do it by being aware of their affect, of how things are already being framed for us, and by reframing, renaming, repeating, and not conceding, to their language even if we’re denying it.
And finally, did I recommend repetition enough?
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.