It is hard for people to communicate with each other when they don’t share a common language. But it is equally hard for people who speak the same language to communicate with each other when they use words and terms whose definitions remain vague and amorphous.
Such words, however, often do have a purpose; the goal is not to communicate meaning but to appeal to emotions. Of course, meaningful language often evokes an emotional response, but meaningless slogans are different; they do not convey content, only emotion. They are code words.
Not all code words, however, are without content. Take the terms “illegal aliens” and “undocumented migrants.” They have the same meaning and could be part of a sensible discourse, but, of course, they are also codes, partly to evoke an emotional response in the hearer, but more often to tell us about the political sensibilities of the speaker since “illegal aliens” are dangerous while “undocumented migrants” are people in need of help.
However, there are words and phrases widely used in national discourse that look as if they are part of rational communication but don’t convey meaning; instead, they only evoke emotions in a limited group. Common language helps create a community, but emotional code words that elicit a visceral response from some but do not have content for all merely divide. And that happens a lot.
The right uses such terms. “Socialism,” for example, is thrown about more than beads at Mardi Gras. I know what beads are, but I don’t know what socialism means to the conservatives who breathe it out seemingly on every third or fourth exhalation. I can tell that it is an epithet, but it only seems to mean any government spending or program that the speaker doesn’t like. Merely labeling those disfavored things as “socialism,” however, does not aid my understanding. I would have you explain to me why you oppose the spending or program in language that I share with you so that I can understand your opposition. Only then can you persuade me. But the word “socialism” provokes a negative reaction in a certain cohort of people and stops the conversation thus increasing divisiveness within the community.
Of course, some on the left proudly proclaim themselves to be socialist or at least democratic socialists, but I don’t know what they mean by that either. It must mean something other than merely liberal or New Deal or Great Society liberal, but it is not clear what the differences are. Instead, the “socialist” tag is used by the left, but in their case the slogan is meant to disparage liberals who are not as far “left” as socialists. Thus AOC and Hannity, although they would never admit it, are linked by their use of that code word. They both use it to disparage their opposition.
The right is all up in arms about “cancel culture.” But what is that? Another code phrase that seems to excoriate the left for calling out bad behavior. Those who use the term also favor the term “personal responsibility,” but the relationship of the one to the other seems vague. If I get on a soapbox seeking to influence others, I should know that my actions have effects. I should expect to take responsibility for them or at least expect that there can be consequences for them. But when the term “cancel culture” is thrown about, it seems to mean that some people should be excused from personal responsibility for their words or actions. As far as I can tell, however, cancel culture is only something the left does. Removing a writer from a television show for racist and misogynistic statements is considered cancel culture, but censuring Republicans for not toeing the Trump line is not.
The left also has its catchphrases although one has been largely taken over by the right. “Critical race theory” has been known to legal academics for decades. Like many social theories, it was not defined with precision, but it examined the intersection of race and law to show how law negatively affected non-whites. Its first focus was on criminal justice and illuminated, e.g., that Blacks were disproportionately stopped for speeding on the New Jersey turnpike or that cocaine sentencing laws resulted in much longer sentences for Blacks than whites. CRT expanded into other areas affected by legal institutions, for example, the intersection of law and housing. I don’t know that the author would call himself a critical race theorist, but a powerful book that fits in with the movement is Richard Rothstein’s, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.
This mode of analysis morphed from the intersection of law and race to intersection of race and powerful institutions generally—corporations, labor unions, the healthcare system, churches. Such critiques got little blowback when they were largely confined to universities. This changed when scholars and others contended that American history had too often ignored race and racism in its recounting and that the teaching of American history in grade schools, high schools and universities should change. This seems to have touched a nerve, and “critical race theory” is now often a conservative epithet used to condemn education of a broader American history without reasoned explanations of the flaws in the approach.
The path started by critical race theory, however, has given us leftist terms: institutional racism and systemic racism. These phrases do have meaning, but often they, too, are presented as conclusory self-evident terms without explanation or evidence. They do not lead to discourse that could inform or persuade but are uttered to end discussions. They, however, are better than the left’s frequent use of “diversity,” which has the barest relationship to a dictionary definition.
(concluded May 12)