Often in the world of politics and policy, we forget that the language used to describe a policy, program or event is what determines who wins and who loses in the court of public opinion. Perception reigns supreme in politics, and perception is shaped by language. Because the media are the vehicle through which language is transmitted – that’s what the word medium means: it’s the connective tissue that joins sender to recipient – the language that the media choose to describe something has enormous power in shaping public opinion.
Sometimes, the language of the left and the language of the right are equally potent. A good example of this is the language used in the abortion issue. Both “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are powerful and positive terms. Even the most ardent opponent of abortion is “pro-choice” on the matters of religion, speech, chosen occupation, sports team support, education, geographic preference and so on. And the most ardent supporter of abortion rights is “pro-life” on the immorality of murder. Each side clings to its favorite term of self-description and attempts to invent negative terms to describe the opposing side. One of the truly great wins by the right in the abortion debate was the invention of the term “partial birth abortion.” However statistically rare that procedure may be, the very term itself led to intrinsic and immediate revulsion, and soon thereafter, legislation banning partial birth abortion was passed in Congress and many state legislatures.
There are other times when the effectiveness of language is lopsided: one side has a great way of describing itself, while the other side looks clumsy and unappealing in self-description. “Gun safety” proved to be a much more appealing way to describe restrictions on firearms than “gun control.” “Second amendment rights” sounds much more constitutional and American than “gun rights.” In a battle between “Second Amendment rights” and “gun control”, the second amendment typically appeals to more people, while on the other hand, “gun safety” may appeal to more people than “gun control.” Who needs an “assault rifle,” but who opposes “personal protection”?
The abortion and gun issues have been around for decades, and the semantic battle lines between the sides are well-defined. But there are two new issues that have spring up in the last couple of years where the media’s preferred language has been decidedly left-leaning, and decidedly winning.
Was a highly-charged public gathering a “riot” or a “demonstration”? The media — print, electronic and social – have universally chosen the word “insurrection” to refer to what happened on Capitol Hill on January 6th of this year. The violence around it cost at least one life. But was that truly an “insurrection”? How about the civil unrest, destruction and property loss responding to the death of George Floyd in police custody? That took place in 140 cities and cost at least six lives, according to the New Tork Times. Yet the media repeatedly referred to those incidents as “mostly peaceful protests.” Capitol Hill on January 6th was “mostly peaceful.” And organized, coordinated uprisings in 140 cities certainly can be legitimately described as “insurrections,” yet nearly all the media never use that term for those protests.
Even more pernicious is the media’s chosen term for perfectly legitimate concerns over the integrity of our voting system. The right’s chosen term is “election integrity,” which emerged as preferable to “voter fraud prevention,” but eventually both were “trumped,” if you’ll excuse the pun, by the cooptive term “democracy.” What is more broadly endorsed as inherently good by our fellow citizens than the term “democracy”? The left would have us believe that all attempts to be sure that only those who have the right to vote do so, and that each votes only once, are somehow an assault on “democracy.” The truth is that widespread voter fraud poses a much greater potential to undermine the very concept of “democracy” than does a requirement for voter identification, for example. Ditto the term “voter restrictions” to describe what would be more fairly described as “voter validation”.
My plea to the listeners of American Radio Journal is to be alert to the language of the left. Whenever you see or hear the terms “insurrection” or “fighting to preserve democracy” in our media, look carefully at the context in which those terms are being used. In most cases, they are adroitly manipulative rather than properly descriptive. Don’t fall for the language of the left.