There’s an old saying in a debate that those who define the terms usually win the argument. That truism has been playing out on the political stage now for at least half a century, as the Right consistently concedes the language to the Left. If it seems like we’re always losing the argument, perhaps that’s because we’re always playing on their home field.
Of course, it’s true that language evolves naturally over time. Think of the word “hood,” which once referred only to a head covering. Now it’s also applied to the front of a car—the part that covers the engine. That’s a natural and logical evolution.
It’s when such shifts in meaning don’t occur naturally and aren’t logical that problems arise—when words are manipulated intentionally to make them mean things they didn’t mean before or aren’t supposed to mean. And this manipulation of language, otherwise known as propaganda, is something the Left is quite good at. In fact, rhetorically speaking, it might be the only thing they’re really good at—their entire game plan—since their arguments are rarely based on logic or fact.
Indeed, most of their arguments, like those for abortion, gun control, and “systemic racism,” are demonstrably illogical and contrafactual. But if they can get us to agree to their terms upfront, which we often do without even realizing it, then they can probably win the argument, anyway. Heck, at this point, it sometimes seems like they’ve already won the argument and all that remains for our side is rear-guard action and damage control. (But that isn’t necessarily the case).
A classic example of what I’m talking about is the word “capitalism” as used to describe our economic system. We conservatives are fond of calling ourselves capitalists or saying that we support capitalism. But in doing so, are we even aware that we’re accepting the Left’s premise—using their word? It was actually Karl Marx’s term for our system, one that he did not coin but did use extensively in Das Kapital (see?). And he certainly did not mean it in a good way.
Adopting the term as our own allows the Left to brand us as “greedy capitalists.” They can then invent pithy if nonsensical bromides like, “Capitalism is only for people who have capital.” Of course, every one of us has capital of some sort, if only our own hard work, that we can trade for goods and services in a free market economy. But since most people associate “capital” with money, it makes for a good slogan. The implied message is that capitalism is just for people with money. Everybody else can go to hell.
That’s why the other term I just used is superior: “free markets.” Free markets are something everybody can get behind because the operative word is “free.” Marxists might be able to argue that capitalism is for capitalists—it really isn’t, but that sounds convincing—but free markets are for everyone. That’s why, instead of talking about capitalism and playing right into the Left’s hands, conservatives should constantly drive home the benefits of a free-market economy.
Another example involves the labels leftists apply to themselves: “liberals” and “progressives.” I can’t imagine anything more illiberal and regressive than modern-day leftism, which seeks to deprive us of as many civil liberties as possible—including those guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, like freedom of religion and speech—and re-create a system led by the elites in which the rest of us are, in Friedrich von Hayek’s memorable phrase, “on the road [back] to serfdom.”
That’s why I always cringe when I hear conservative commentators refer to today’s leftist radicals as “liberals.” They’re certainly not classical liberals—i.e., libertarians—nor are they even old-fashioned, Jimmy Carter, Sunday-school-type liberals. It is vitally important, and becoming more so each day, to call them what they really are: Marxists, Stalinists, and Maoists. Besides accurately describing their policy preferences, such terms offer the rhetorical advantage of associating those policy preferences with some of history’s worst people, and deservedly so.
Lately, the Left has become so audacious in their manipulation of language that they’ve begun calling things the exact opposite of what they really are. Take “anti-fascism,” for example, as represented by the group Antifa, whose tactics closely resemble those of Hitler’s Brownshirts. And “anti-racism,” which is itself nothing more than a form of blatant racism.
Speaking of which, there’s another great example of language manipulation. The word “racism” literally means discrimination on the basis of race. But for the Left, only one race, whites, can be guilty of racism, because they define the word purely in terms of power. And in their Marxist worldview, in which everyone is either a victim or an oppressor, only white people can have power.
That, of course, is ridiculous on its face. In today’s America, many black people hold positions of power, from local school boards all the way up to the White House. But beyond that, the bastardization of the term allows the Marxists to claim victimhood for people who are not victims and condemn as oppressors those who have never oppressed anyone.
Indeed, given such a narrow definition of “racism,” it’s not much of a leap to assert that ALL white people are racist—because, remember, only they have power in the Left’s warped universe. And of course, that is exactly what the Left is asserting today. It is the basis for “Critical Race Theory,” that vile, hateful, racist (in the true sense of the word), viral ideology now infecting our schools and other institutions.
But it all begins when we as conservatives accept the Left’s lexicon. That’s why the front line of the current culture war must be at the level of language. We cannot simply argue policy; we must also contest vocabulary and refuse to let the Marxists set the terms of the debate. Otherwise, we’ve already lost it.