Early humans thought in graphic images and drew them on the walls of caves—the first graffiti. Eventually, because we just can’t leave anything alone, we started writing words (which are, actually a type of image); then we started thinking in words, then writing paragraphs, then books, then trilogies. In the process, we learned we could create more complex (and often overly-complex) thought structures than we had imagined possible.
Eventually we reached a high-water mark, creating great and complicated word-centric literatures in multiple genres: fiction—poetry, drama, short-stories, novels; and non-fiction—news, essays, philosophies, religions (well, religions are actually fictions), and advertising. Now, due to the internet, we’re reverting to images: The internet is a high-tech reprise of cave drawing and graffiti. We might as well accept it; to move forward, we have to move backward. (Or vice-versa.)
One of the unintended consequences of switching from stick figures to writing, and then to word-centric thinking, was that our ability to store things in our heads, our memory capacity, atrophied. As we increasingly off-loaded stuff that people used to keep in their heads—ancestral lineage, shopping lists, phone numbers, receipts, corporate financial books, diaries—onto external objects like stone tablets, paper, diaries, financial records, our mental hard disks have shriveled. Pre pencil and paper, people carried many generations of ancestors in their heads. In some less-technologically advanced places, they still do. But not here. Not anymore. Now we have Ancestry.Com.
Although graffiti never went away, written language became dominant, and its hegemony lasted seven hundred years or so. Then came television. TV—not movies—initiated the reversion to graphic-image-centric thinking, a process that the spread and near ubiquity of the internet has accelerated. (I don’t mean to imply that one type of literacy is preferable. I do believe word-centric literacy allows more complex thought structures than image-centric thinking, but a) that’s not necessarily a good thing; and b) I can’t judge objectively because I’m used to thinking in words.) Regardless, Instagram shows that the future is internet-postings of virtual cave drawings and messages comprised entirely of icons.
During the course of reverting from word- to image-centric literacy, the number of words in circulation has declined, paralleled by a decline in the average-person’s vocabulary. Many thousands of words have dropped out of circulation, lost to common parlance. (Well, they’re not actually lost; they’re preserved in word museums called dictionaries.) Other consequences of this word-to-image shift are the demotion of rhetoric, the loss of respect for the importance of words themselves, and the erosion of the sense of the importance of choosing and using the correct word. (See Mark Twain’s comment on the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.)
One word that has dropped from general discourse is dismay. (When was the last time anyone heard someone at the mall say, I am dismayed by the lack of service at Macy’s?) Well, you’re seeing dismay now: I am dismayed about how little the leaders of the left seem to understand the importance of rhetoric and of choosing their words precisely. With few exceptions, our—meaning our—leaders simply can’t—or won’t—spend the time and energy necessary to use their grown-up words effectively, either in writing or orally. As a result, the right runs rhetorical rings around us.
Rhetoric—effective speechifying—is a craft distinct from the content of a speech just as acting is a craft distinct from the text of a play. Like acting, rhetoric can be learned, but left-leaning leaders seem to have no interest in learning it. (Barak Obama is a stirring speaker, and both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were spell-binding orators, but these are the exceptions. Oratory that is a good deal less than spellbinding is the rule.)
One result of the left’s rhetorical ineptitude is that we leave significant numbers of voters on the table. This begs a few questions: It this because leftie leaders refuse to recognize that a group of voters exists who, with effort, we could win over? Do we just not want to make the effort? Or is it because we’re interested only in preaching to our captive choir? If so, why is that? Is preaching to the choir more emotionally satisfying? Or less scary than confronting a potentially hostile audience? I don’t know. But it does seem we choose either to ignore—or worse actively alienate—people we could win over if we’d talk to them instead of constantly left-splaining.
Having long studied this—it’s been going on for a while—I’ve observed a few things: Sometimes left-leaning leaders don’t seem to know what the words they’re using actually mean; sometimes they don’t value careful word choice; and sometimes, stubbornly and self-defeatingly, they insist on using words as they mean them rather than as their audience hears them.
One example: lefties who insist on using defund the police as a slogan when they actually mean reallocate police resources. To people outside the choir, defund means take all their money away from them. (They think that because that’s what defund, you know, means.) To the people outside the choir, defund translates to abolish. (Yes, I’m aware there are people who want to abolish the police, but those are people who elevate theory over reality, something that puts them into the I don’t care if we accomplish anything category.)
Deliberately choosing known trigger words to describe a controversial policy is at best foolish because, assuming we really do want to implement that policy and aren’t just cow-tipping, there are many independent voters—and even some Republicans— who would support reallocating police budgets if we would only take the time to talk to them (as opposed to talking at them) about how that would work and what it would accomplish.
Yet instead we insist on further frightening already-nervous people—and on providing ammunition to entrenched interests who seek to undermine reform efforts—by saying what that we want to defund—i.e., abolish—the police. It’s a self-defeating strategy, and the right uses our own trigger words to convince potential allies that we’re wild-eyed idiots: “Wait, what? They want to abolish the police? That’s crazy. We like the police. No! Go away! Fingers in our ears. La la la la la la la!”
Are we trying to torpedo our own ideas?
As a society we have over time, and to the steady degradation of our intellectual culture, allowed the proliferation of ever more vague rhetorical shortcuts; we have allowed into circulation rafts of crippled and malformed phrases that short-circuit and obfuscate rational thinking, that lead us away from clarity, away from illumination, away from truth. Some of these crippled words and phrases are the result of lazy thinking. (And then continued use of them encourages more lazy thinking.)
But some of these phrases deliberately spread, the toxic tools of right wing cultural manipulation. The right has introduced many such phrases, and it then uses them to confuse issues. For instance, the anti-choice crowd insists that Life begins at conception. Sorry, what? You’re saying that life does not exist before conception? Are not a sperm and an egg alive before they meet? Are you saying that a (potential) mother is not alive? When you say, Life begins at conception, are you saying life comes into being only after a fetus forms and that what was there before was somehow not alive, was not life? Are you insane? Because when you say Life begins at conception, that’s literally what the words you’re using mean.
It is not only nonsense, it is premeditated nonsense, blatant blather, dark, toxic jabberwocky meant to muddy issues, to conflate conflicting concepts, to confuse and defuse opposition arguments before debate begins. The antis are not arguing in good faith, not involved in an effort to get at the truth; they are religious zealots and bigots, and, along with their right wing allies, they want to win the argument at any cost. Winning the argument isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.
Saying Life begins at conception is manipulative because using that capital L invokes a category, creates an abstraction, and that abstraction is a lie. What is true? That a life begins at conception. With those seemingly small changes, that innocuous article and that nonassertive, lower case l, we are now discussing not an abstract, idealized, romanticized, Platonic category—Life—but a concrete, discrete living thing that requires food and lodging. And once that change of conceptual venue occurs, responsible people must then have a conversation about what rights, if any, that new, discrete life has and how much those potential rights will weigh against the rights and interests of a living, breathing mother. And father. And siblings.
When they say that Life begins at conception, the right is being deliberately illogical, following the same template they use when they invoke Woman—an abstraction—rather than talking about a woman, a living, breathing individual. That individual, when imprisoned by that capital W, becomes a handmaid to an idealized, romanticized notion of pristine Womanhood. Such a living, breathing woman, forced to accommodate capital W Womanhood rather than the messier life of lower case womanhood, faces the difference between bondage and freedom. (Taking my own advice to choose words carefully, instead of freedom let’s say being left alone by the state to run her own life. Leaving her alone to deal with the unpredictable, messy, day-to-day details of a living, breathing woman’s life in lieu of some patriarchy-infused, pedestalized, male-gaze vision of a Woman’s Life. More generally, forcing humans—who all live messy lives—to live up to the impossibly exacting standards of romanticized, idealized, Platonized versions of social perfection is Neofascism 101.
Perfect Wife, Perfect Life. The right’s white-male ideal of Womanhood is a life sentence, that capital W a capital offense.
(The right—which has its own choir, only they’re armed—deploys a backup rhetorical weapon should people point out its conscious misuse of language for manipulative ends: One is accused of nit-picking, of hair-splitting, of pettifoggery (great word; lost). When challenged to define their terms, they play the the passive-aggressive you know what I mean card. Well, actually, no, I don’t. Tell me what you mean. And, wipe the spittle off your face.)
Allowing our rhetorical opponents to define—or, more precisely, to undefine—the terms of an argument and the meanings of the words we are permitted to use is like agreeing to play Scrabble using their idiosyncratic dictionaries, or to play Jeopardy with their personalized books of “facts.” Once having accepted the Life begins at conception trope, attempting to counter an anti-abortion position is arguing in a definitional la-la-land. The debate is over. The contest is lost.
There are many examples of the right’s consciously colonizing language by using vagueness to defeat us before debate begins. Another recent example: the specious, fundamentalism-infused theory of "Constitutional Originalism," a cracked-up—and cracked—legal theory that posits that the Constitution can correctly be interpreted only in terms of what the Founders meant when they wrote it. Practically speaking, “Originalism” translates to The Constitution means what I say it means when I say it. (Question for Justice Alito: When was the last time you were commanded to quarter a British soldier?)
NFDs (Non Fungible Definitions) are crucial if truth has any hope of emerging. When we argue with these people, it is critical to insist on precision in language. If they refuse the most fundamental ground rules of debate—defining terms and sticking to those definitions—then they’re arguing in bad faith, and the debate is futile. But in fact they can’t agree because if they did agree-to using and sticking to specific, in-dictionary definitions, they know they would lose. Every time. Thus they resist and ridicule requests to define their terms.
For our part, when we talk to people outside the choir, we have to be both disciplined and scrupulous about the words we choose and use, always keeping in mind that the meanings of the words our listeners hear may differ from what those words mean to us; then we must adjust our usage accordingly.
Requiring that listeners accept and use our definitions is the way colonizers operate: Colonizers insist that people learn a new language so they can then thank their colonizers in the colonizer’s own tongue. To be successful, we must convince non-choir voters that our ideas are better in their language, not in ours. For that to work, we have to listen more and left-splain less.
And also learn to make better speeches.