Did you know that governments don’t spend a penny on transportation or education? I know it’s true because I’ve read it hundreds of times in dozens of mainstream newspapers, magazines, and websites. These days, the government “invests” in education and infrastructure, even in food stamps and the environment and diplomacy. Apparently it still “spends” on defense, though, or “the military.”
If non-journalists view this as an esoteric difference—the newspaper equivalent of the theological debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin—that’s understandable. But it’s actually quite consequential. The words we use set the terms of debate. By “we,” I mean practitioners as well as scribblers.
So, when you read that government “cut” spending on this program or that program, you naturally assume that means it will be spending some amount less than it did the year before. If the story or the politician says spending was “slashed,” then you probably expect an even larger reduction.
More than likely, though, what you’ll get is neither. What you’ll get is a reduction in the rate of growth. If spending on Program A went up 10 percent last year and is going up only 5 percent this year, to politicians and way too many journalists, that’s a 5 percentage-point cut.
You will also see demands that taxes be raised on “the rich.” This would be a neat trick for the federal government, which taxes income, not wealth. When politicians and liberal journalists refer to “the rich,” they mean “the highest earners.” But that doesn’t incite a crowd quite as well as attacking “the rich,” a group whose membership is never quite defined.
And it’s much easier to be in favor of “putting a price on carbon” than to support a carbon tax.
This Ratchet Usually Goes Only One Way
Over the years, this sort of sleight-of-mouth has become endemic on both sides of the political aisle. But journalists tend to aid and abet only one side when choosing which words to include in a story.
So when a former AFL-CIO political director referred recently to “so-called think tanks” on the Right, the New York Times reporter dutifully transcribed it without pausing to wonder whether he would ever include such a modifier if it were applied to left-wing groups that are doing the same sorts of things done by liberty-minded think tanks such as the Mackinac Center and Heartland Institute.
The reasons for this sort of thing are well-documented. It is not a conspiracy. It is a habit of mind for journalists, even those who take rigorous care to be as objective as possible. Many are conscientious. But even so, they are for the most part liberals swimming in a warm, calm sea of liberalism, so familiar and acclimatized that they are barely even aware they are in the water. Pointing out such discrepancies to reporters and editors sometimes elicits a shrug, occasionally an argument. The rare efforts to repent amount to drops in that calm sea.
Why Word Choice Matters
This matters beyond the bounds of an argument between reporters at the bar after work, because the language we foist upon people becomes the language in which they think about public policy. If spending on defense is “spending on the military,” but spending on education is “investment in our children,” well, that sort of settles it, doesn’t it?
If one side’s researchers work for “think tanks” and the other side’s researchers work for “so-called think tanks,” the reading public might get the idea that one side’s ideas are legitimate and the other side’s aren’t.
George Orwell worried in his most famous essay that the “struggle against the abuse of language” is seen by most people as “a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes.” But he knew better. “Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes,” Orwell wrote.
Journalists, once thought of as guardians of the language, have taken sides in the war to shape it. When one of the main arbiters, the Associated Press, switches from “illegal alien” to “illegal immigrant” to “undocumented immigrant,” this is not a natural growth; it is making a choice and shaping the language for their own purposes, and for the purposes of others.
The same can be said for the ever-growing list of trigger words and microaggressions that are barred from public discourse, the inverted modern version of Orwell’s “catalogue of swindles and perversions.” We are being swindled, and the language perverted, by the absence of words we are not permitted to use.
The only defense is to be informed enough to know when you’re being swindled. Only then can the fully conscious be fully capable of reshaping language to our own purposes.