Language & Politics

In the comments, Mike at the Big Stick writes:

I’ve often used the term Progressive Conservative for myself (although I stop sub-labeling after watching all of ED Kain’s self-labeling acrobatics).

I would just note that the self-labeling acrobatics in question are not merely to find an appropriate label for myself, but to help understand the political positions these labels hinge upon more entirely. I believe in the power of naming things. I have always been prone to giving things names. I believe in the lasting power and influence of language on ideas. Our language shapes our society and our culture.

Our political language is especially important but is rarely specific enough: we have, in a sense, double-plus ungood political nomenclature. We speak in cudgels, which is perhaps natural in this context, since politics is inherently violent. But I want to speak of things with greater specificity, not less.

How (and what) we call ourselves, what language we use to describe where we stand, is important in its own right for reasons that go beyond simply finding an appropriate coalition to stand alongside, or a comfortable label to pin to our breasts. Perhaps I have engaged in acrobatics – hanging my opinions and my internal conflicts out to dry in such a public forum – but the acrobatics have helped me learn a great deal. The more I have tried to understand where I fit into the political spectrum, the better I understand myself, the better I understand society and others within it, and the more I realize how destructive our political language can become. If anything I would say these ‘sub-labels’ are the only meaningful kind, the only ones which convey any sincerity or specificity at all.

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34 thoughts on “Language & Politics

  1. > We speak in cudgels, which is perhaps natural in this context, since
    > politics is inherently violent.

    I love this line.

    Although I would have used “bludgeon”, myself. That is, if I was clever enough to come up with the line in the first place.

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  2. Terms often conceal more than they reveal. They blur distinctions to make one size fit all. But one size doesn’t.

    I do see what you’re getting at, Mr. Kain, since the “godfather of conservatives,” Edmund Burke, was quite liberal, calling for fair treatment of the American colonists, Ireland and colonial India. He also noted, ” A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. ”

    Certainly associating “conservatism” with a mindless defense of the status quo is unhelpful, although it’s certainly a winning tactic if you can get away with it—since the world isn’t perfect [and never will be], all the flaws of the human condition can somehow be blamed on conservatism or the “right-wing.” The anti-conservative is always on the side of the angels.

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  3. My primary problem with labels is that it automatically pigeon-holes the labelee. Scott and I have discussed several times the notion that labels lead to distrust which is why we would get much more accomplished if we labeled our positions instead of ourselves.

    I would also quote Kyle Cupp here: “Much to my disappointment, I notice that I, on occasion, passionately hold opinions about matters of which I have little to no knowledge. On these occasions, when I come upon a view contrary to my own, I almost instinctively draw my sword, raise the banner, and launch a thousand ships, ready to battle in a fit of Homeric rage. Of course, my opponent has but to breathe the slightest breath in support of his position, and my sword is shattered, my banner is torn, and my fleet is lost to the stormy sea. I retreat and seek shelter in the labyrinths of Wikipedia or Google, hoping against hope that I might find some posthumous support for my uninformed opinion.”

    How many ships have been launched in defense of our chosen label when we actually have little agreement with the majority opinion on a specific issue? Labels are fun and studying the political etymology associated with them is a worthwhile pursuit, but I find it increasingly a part of the team mentality in modern politics and I for one have lost interest in playing the game.

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    • Interesting.
      You seemingly rail against labels, but haven’t you already labeled yourself as a ‘Progressive Conservative’? Myself, I’ve never before run across this term, but it immediately strikes me that most Conservatives would deem it an oxymoron while most Progressives might consider it superfluous.

      In terms of constructive organization, human thought requires the use of categorization. That said, categorization (aka ‘labeling’) is not an inherent barrier to higher levels of critical examination– philosophical or analytical. The limitations that you lament are strictly self-imposed.

      Re your Cupp quote:
      While it’s certainly instructive of Cupp’s own MO [note to self], I don’t see how it speaks to Kain’s larger point on the utility of categorization.

      You may have wearied of the ‘team mentality’ — and I totally get that — but at the end of the day (election day, particularly) one must choose a team, no? Nevertheless, even within this choice there’s still plenty of wiggle room for scrutiny, reflection, dissension and active re-creation. History has taught us that, if nothing else.

      I’ve a few other thoughts to add to the mix that more appropriately belong on the general thread.

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      • I would also add that Progressive Conservatism is a perfectly defensible label. I would contrast it directly with what I would call Static Conservatism. I would say that most of my personal opinions fall in the PC mold i.e. I am happy to see sosciety move forward, I just want it done at a safe and well-thought pace. The problem is that as soon as I start flinging that label around I immediately hit a contradiction. An example might be abortion policy which I fall Far Right on. I find it far easy to simply state my leanings on an issue-by-issue basis.

        I suspect much of ED’s desire for a label goes with his writing career and kudos to him for getting paid for his work. I just don’t find it necessary anymore at my old ripe old age of 35.

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  4. I find it interesting that so many people are self-labeling as a way to divert attention from their real beliefs. When the word “liberal” became so negative in the minds of many Americans, the liberal began using progressive, until they realized progressivism is associated with early 20th century progressivism and socialism, and “progressive” became negative. People who once proudly called themselves “conservative”, when conservatives were attacked, called themselves moderates or center-right. Now we have liberaltarian, left-libertarian. Too many people want to hold contradictory views without anyone calling them on it. The self-described libertarian promotes many forms of statism, so she says I’m a liberaltarian. The self-described moderate is afraid someone is going to discover their modern liberal colors. The liberal is backing progressives for political office, but doesn’t want to be called a progressive, on and on. Not enough people have the courage of their convictions, or they have none and don’t want that to be seen either. I don’t mind labeling, if it’s the right label, but understanding the label is important too — I certainty don’t like being called a rightwing extremist because I defend the Tea Party against unfair attacks. The use of labels to either smear someone or to hide your own beliefs are both a misuse of labels. Labels should be just be a shortcut to know where the different sides are generally coming from, not a lock-down into a cartoon version of all the cliches. Most reasonable people understand in a general way what conservative, liberal, progressive, libertarian all mean on political scale. But when someone is all over the spectrum in an argument, they should be called on it, because you can’t be a little of each one when it’s convenient, nor can you hide what you are for long, because the main leanings will show.

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    • People who once proudly called themselves “conservative”, when conservatives were attacked, called themselves moderates or center-right.

      A lot of these people stopped calling themselves conservatives and resorted to moderate or center-right when they got tired of conservatives screaming at them “YOU’RE NO CONSERVATIVE!” or “YOU’RE A PHONY CONSERVATIVE” or, in the case of party identification, “RINO!”.

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        • Perhaps so. But as often as not, if not moreso, the second they identify as liberal, liberals will be quick to point out the many ways in which they are not liberal. Both conservative and liberal are nebulous terms that mean different things to different people. The same goes for moderate.

          I agree that people are often dishonest either with themselves or who they are talking to about what they are. In my book, if you can’t bring yourself to ever vote for one of the two major parties (and both parties are competitive) you’re not a “moderate” or, unless you regularly vote for third party candidates, “independents”. But it can be helpful to have terms other than “liberal” and “conservative” to work with. Like, for example, “center-right” or “moderate Republican/Democrat.”

          Further, subgroups to explain that differentiate between movements can also be helpful. Libertarian-minded Republican, Populist Liberal, and so on help make distinctions that explain why people with significantly different beliefs nonetheless identify with the right or left coalition.

          Except that, the second they do, liberals are often quick to point out “You’re not one of us!”

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          • I’d like to co-sign with Trumwill here. I have tried to “own it” and jump on the liberal bandwagon, and quite frankly I’m not sure that was either wise or quite what I expected it to be. Liberals are just as quick to disown people who refuse to toe the line.

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          • I agree with what you’re saying Trumwill, but paradoxically I think there is a second issue that resonates just as strongly: it’s been my observations (and experience) that having a label, even a self-made sub-label, can cause one to agree/disagree with an argument not because one believes that argument, or has even really thought about that argument, but because their brain is trying to attach itself to the argument that best fits their label (or sub-label).

            In other words, I think that our own labels drive our beliefs and values as much as our values and beliefs drive our labels.

            I think labels tickle that part of our subconscious psyche that thrills to tribalism.

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    • Political consistency is overrated.This is politics, not mathematics. We’re not faced with 2 (or 3 or n) logically consistent and politically feasible schemes for improving the human condition to choose between. Instead we’re faced with ideologies that are sprawling masses of unexamined assumptions, shibboleths and tenuous connections.

      There’s no particular reason why wanting to own and fire guns should be connected with opposition to gay marriage, or why favoring unionization by card check should relate to the legality of abortion, or why opposition to coercive taxation connects to opposition to fractional reserve banking. The particulars of specific ideological groupings are much more a matter of group loyalty, common interests and historical coincidence than they are a matter of any kind of logical or even personal consistency.

      I don’t think we should fight this – even in the physical sciences, hell even in mathematics, we have to live with apparent inconsistencies for very long periods of time until they work themselves out. There’s no reason why politics should be different, and the process of working those inconsistencies out can only usefully be done through actual discussion and negotiation with people who hold different views – if other people are going to be inconsistent, we’re unlikely to get anywhere merely by being consistent ourselves and lecturing them about it, and in reality its quite likely that what we think are consistent and coherent views are in fact not.

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  5. There is also a practical reason for self-labeling, which is to be understood. It’s not so simple as just choosing labels that sound attractive. There are real concrete differences between the labels, or there should be at least. These differences should be clarified and kept cerebral and consistent with the original meaning as much as possible, because politicians are moving in the other direction – towards the visceral and emotional – in terms of language.

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  6. I flicked on Lawrence O’Donnell tonight. The tone was reasonably adult, so I left it on.

    A Democrat pollster was giving his analysis of the recent election, pretty much that 60-odd% said the current Democrats were to the left of them, and that going farther left will be disaster for the Dems.

    On the other side of the same side [that’s how MSNBC likes to do things] was a guy from The Nation with the usual “what do you mean by ‘liberal’?!” “What do you mean by ‘left’?!”

    Even O’Donnell was kinda embarrassed, saying, well, we all know what we’re talking about here.

    The other side of Mr. Kain’s conundrum is when labels reveal too much.

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