Spinning With Words

Dr. Malcolm Cross

As I followed the coverage of the near-acquittal of the illegal immigrant on trial for killing a young woman, I was struck by the comments of one of the fiercer critics of the verdict:  Why, he asked, do we call cities whose local police are prohibited from reporting illegals to the federal government called “sanctuary cities?”  Shouldn’t Americans have sanctuary from dangerous illegals?  And why call some illegals “Dreamers?”  Can’t, and don’t, American citizens dream too?

What he was objecting too, of course, was the use of words to put a positive spin on something to which he was deeply opposed—the presence of illegal immigrants in our society.  And he had a point:  It’s common for political activists of whatever persuasion to use words to create positive—or negative feelings about certain issues to help shape public opinion:  We normally think of “sanctuaries” and “dreamers” as good, especially if they’re dreaming the American Dream.  And immigrants who’ve not come here are “illegals” if one doesn’t want them here, or “undocumented” if one does.

And this practice of using words for positive or negative spin is common for other issues.  For example, supporters of abortion call themselves “pro-choice,” since in America we believe in “freedom of choice.”  Never mind what the object of that choice might be.  And they call their opponents “anti-choice,” implying they don’t believe in freedom, and they’re burdened by negative mental attitudes were being negative about anything is considered bad, while we should be positive about everything.

On the other hand, opponents of abortion call themselves “pro-life,” no doubt on the theory that most of us like “life,” as opposed to “death.”  And they speak of “unborn babies” rather than of “fetuses” or “fetal material,” and of “partial-birth abortion” rather than of “dilation and extraction.”

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to permit or require the teaching of “Creationism” in place of evolution, or as a rival theory to evolution, in high school biology classes.  Opponents of evolution label their religion-based rival theory “Intelligent Design” to obscure its Biblical origins.

This practice of using words for “spin” has been going on since well before the Civil War (War Between the States?  War of Northern Aggression?)  For example, in the fight to ratify the new Constitution, its supporters called themselves “Federalists” to imply that they favored a much weaker central government than that which the Constitution actually created.  They called their opponents, who feared the Constitution would create too strong a central government, “Anti-federalists,” again implying negativity of thought.  Actually, those opposed the adoption of the new Constitution were the true “Federalists,” given the meaning of the term in the 1780s, and those who supported it could have been more accurately described as “nationalists,” a term they did not want to use for fear of offending and frightening states rights advocates.

And this practice is by no means confined to the United States.  Totalitarian regimes and movements love to adopt names which imply they’re democratic when they’re anything but:  The People’s Republic of China, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the National Socialist German Workers Party (the Nazis, who called their courts, incidentally, “People’s Courts”).

George Orwell, in 1984 and elsewhere, frequently discussed how words can be used to help indoctrinate people by changing words’ meaning:  Freedom is Slavery, War is Peace.  Or the words can be eliminated altogether, making it impossible for people to verbalize whatever inchoate thoughts they might have.  No doubt this explains efforts to deny educational opportunities to slaves in the antebellum South, to the African Bantu tribes in apartheid South Africa, or to women throughout history and in many parts of the world—especially in the Middle East—today.  The problem with educated people who possess a rich vocabulary is that they may want less oppression and more freedom (or they may become too uppity).  So depriving the oppressed with an education becomes a standard operating procedure for the oppressor.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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