Words Can Be Deceiving

Politicians and commentators long ago discovered that words have a meaning which extends beyond their literal definition. When Joe McCarthy renounced someone as a “communist,” the word meant more than “a believer in communism.” It meant that the person was a traitor to America, deluded by our enemies and morally corrupt. McCarthy managed, in many cases, to convey the literal truth (that the person believed in communism) while at the same time issuing a condemnation of character. The connotations of the word were a subtle and inalienable poison.

Similarly, during his initial campaign for President, Bush’s publicity corps began referring to him as a “compassionate conservative.” While this was widely mocked by his opponents (hurr hurr oxymoron we’re so clever yay), it was also extremely effective. It’s difficult to argue against such a label. It wasn’t false in any way which could be concretely demonstrated, but it conveyed an image which, to many critics, represented the very antithesis of Bush.

In this same way, “liberal” and “fascist” are both strong words which conjure up vivid mental images. A “liberal” is a mindless opponent of the status quo. A “fascist” is a jackbooted authoritarian villain. These words say a great deal without actually saying much at all, and we must be wary of this and other highly effective and subtle tactics.

Steve Knauss’ recent article “Political Conservatism: A Mental Disorder?” while clever, implies that right-wing pundits are all fascist because some of them roughly fit a broadly-interpreted “F Scale” of fascism. However, it should be noted that none of those pundits ever actually took the test which would have rated them on the F Scale and that they do not really seem to fit even the loosest definition of “fascist.”

Knauss concludes the article with the sentence, “[A]ccording to valid psychological authorities, the potential for fascism exists in major players on the politicial right.” This is a masterwork of implication. Clearly the potential for fascism exists in major players on the political right. It exists in just about everyone else, as well. Along those same lines, “valid authorities” could indicate virtually any psychologist, but it manages to convey an unwarranted sense of authority. Knauss says nothing that is strictly untrue. The untruth is in everything that he doesn’t say but manages to communicate to us nonetheless.

Gianni LoVario’s recent article “Just What the Doctor Ordered” operates with the same poison pen. Jokingly, he puts himself in the position of authority (as a psychiatrist of some sort) and represents a “liberal” as the “sick” patient. While obviously this is merely intended as a light-hearted approach to the article, it also encourages unwarranted conclusions. This duality is only further stressed. The “doctor” is kind and wise, always speaking reasonably and calmly, as the “patient” becomes increasingly agitated, hostile and markedly insane.

LoVario continues his subtle tactics further on in the article. In a brief discussion of the recent illegal wiretappings perpetrated by Bush, he mentions that former Presidents FDR and Truman also used wiretapping on their citizens. He neglects to mention that, since that time, such statutes as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act were enacted by Congress to prevent repeats of this behavior on the part of presidents. That Act established the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, whose job it is to provide a judicial check and balance on the powers of administrative wiretapping. The allegations of illegality thus stem from Bush’s circumvention of this court specifically (a suspicious thing to do when one considers that the court has approved 18,761 warrants and only denied five since its inception). Thus, LoVario’s mention of precedent by other Presidents is not only inaccurate, it’s quite misleading.

While I have pointed out seemingly dishonest tactics on the part of Knauss and LoVario in this article, I don’t want to be misunderstood. What they have done is more than commonplace; it is universal. For example, during the course of commenting on their own use of connotation and misdirection, I, myself, used it multiple times. Repeatedly putting the words “doctor” and “patient” into quotes, above, clearly communicates doubt on my part as to the validity of either label.

I am not saying that such tactics should stop. That would be an exercise in futility, as well as an unwelcome restriction on the effectiveness of rhetoric. I merely want to call readers’ attention to these sleight-of-word tactics, to make them wary of accepting any political statement at face value. We must be vigilant and insightful when reading the news for absolutely anyone can fall into a linguistic trap, even the highest among us. As a matter of fact, rhetorical authorities have said that the potential for being an easily misled idiot exists even in the president.

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