Whether we are communicating something simple like a restaurant order or something complex like a tax code, we expect others to understand. Language provides an avenue to express shared meaning so humans can relate to one another. On college campuses, social media, and in the courts, this shared meaning is being destroyed. Through linguistic activism, leftists have begun a full-scale war on language, playing by their own set of constantly shifting rules.
I don’t know when it started or with what word, but the modern American lexicon is changing faster than society can keep up. Any twentieth-century liberal who walked onto a college campus today would be more confused than the town drunk from Babel straggling into town the morning after a bender. Words can now literally be defined with their antonym. We are a hair’s width and an ounce of stupidity away from “war is peace, freedom is slavery.”
Word games take many forms, and honest people must call it out. At Prager University, Michael Knowles exposes this tactic and how it affects the culture. Underlying each tactic is misuse of words.
This isn’t innocent linguistic drift or slang; it is a conscious effort to reshape society. The schemes include redefining words for personal gain, using modifiers to alter the meaning of a word, replacing technical words with colloquial ones, and creating new words. Each of these is a bullying tactic, which distort effective discourse.
What Do These Tactics Look Like?
It starts with misusing words or defining them based on circumstance rather than objective meaning. The entire purpose of defined language is to hold constant meaning so others can understand. Situational use starts to condition how people feel about words, building up a new connotation.
The classic example is the word “liberal,” which the far-left co-opted. It was adopted because of its positive connotation, and used as a cover for imposing greater leftist control under the guise of liberty. In reality, there is nothing liberal about failing to protect life, burdening individuals with regulations and taxes, or forcing individuals to provide services to others. This is no accidental misnomer, but strategic messaging to influence people. Who doesn’t want to support a policy that is “progressive,” “pro-choice,” or “affordable”?
When the word cannot be flipped, other words are sometimes added to suggest a new meaning. In the case of firearms, the new popular phrase is “assault rifle.” Webster’s Dictionary was happy to update its definition to help nudge society in the right direction. The effect is a stronger connotation, which plays on people’s emotion and visceral reactions to the phrase.
Tinkering with language and misusing words results in opinion polls in which 92 percent of people support “universal background checks” without realizing that would prevent a friend or family member from selling or trading a gun privately. Modifiers that draw emotion can effectively shape new public policy based on feelings and not objective facts.
Following very closely is substituting words to suit the political narrative. The play here is almost always to swap out the legal or technical word for the connotation from casual conversation. While “assault rifle” is one example, a more explosive one is “terrorism.”
The word has a legal definition, which is anchored in the actors’ beliefs and intentions, not others’ outcomes or perceptions. In general conversation, however, it simply means something causing terror or great violence. A crowd of leftists will cry foul when a white male is not immediately labeled a terrorist following any abhorrent crime before facts are known.
This tactic combines several others, because it suggests that Republicans and conservatives are selectively using the term against Islamist extremists. Except that many on the Right were quick to label the Charleston shooter a domestic terrorist, and while the motive of the recent Las Vegas shooter remains unknown, conservatives labeled him with nuance from the available information.
In reality, this is a sleight of hand, because it is the leftist selectively labeling. Violent and excessive killing does not become terrorism because a leftist feels it should be labeled such.
Social media outrage is not the worst effect of this definition swap. Former FBI director James Comey infamously reframed the Hillary Clinton investigation by referring to it as a “matter.” When it is convenient, activists drop technical language and improperly replace it with imprecise and milder words. This shouldn’t fool anyone, and deserves a forceful rebuttal.
Another sleight of hand is the phrase “undocumented immigrant” in place of “illegal alien.” The rallying cry is that “no person is illegal.” But of course “illegal” refers to the action and status, not the personhood of the individual, and “alien” is the technical term for a foreign citizen.
Sen. Kamala Harris pushed this tactic further, in a 2017 tweet saying, “An undocumented immigrant is not a criminal.” The problem is that, by definition, to be an undocumented immigrant is necessarily to break a law. These word games are not just misleading, they’re often blatant lies.
Wholly disassociating words from their accepted meaning opened an entirely new realm of possibility for leftists. By separating gender from sex, linguistic activists tore the very fabric of mutual understanding, and created a new class of victims, and by definition, a new class of offenders. Pronouns, the simplest way to identify another party, are now subject to feelings.
Defining words on subjective views defeats the purpose of language, because it creates an endless guessing game, and empowers the other party to choose when to reward and when to punish the speaker. By sabotaging the accepted unity of sex and gender, dozens of new pronouns sprang into existence.
New words do not harm discourse, unless they are thrust upon people and enforced through speech codes. Controlling how people speak is the implicit goal of this movement, which combined with anti-hate-speech activism seeks to empower the Left as the arbiters of morality and to punish those who wrongfully use language—ironically, achieved by abusing language themselves.
Why Is This So Important?
The Left does not have to rely on judicial activism when it can brainwash an entire population by changing how they think of and describe policy. A whole generation raised to think that “well-regulated” means the same thing as “government-inspected and -approved” can destroy the Second Amendment.
Words do change meaning over time, which is why this issue is so important. The judicial philosophies of originalism and textualism emphasize the importance of words, because they convey valuable meaning. The importance of these philosophies, however, is that they rely on what words meant to the public when they were used. To impose the current leftist linguistic strategy would mean that over time, laws do not need to change if the words in those laws can simply evolve meaning.
In reality, a statute’s meaning is frozen with the public meaning of the words when it passed. It is essential to critically evaluate what words mean and the context in which they are used.
When colloquial words are improperly elevated, and legal and technical words are degraded to irrelevance, the interpreter is the only arbiter of meaning. Judges already hold this trust, but if they are unbound from the public meaning of words, they are no better than tyrants acting on subjective whim.
The righteous aim of the American experiment was to create a nation of laws, not of men. Today, written law is not supreme, because words themselves are decaying. Judges can decide on meaning, politicians can misuse words with abandon, and activists can weaponize linguistic drift to brainwash uneducated voters.
The pen is truly mightier than the sword. The power to influence language is the power to create and destroy, and it must be checked.