Say What? Linguistic High Ground in Political Debates

The development of debating skills is vital for advocates of liberty, as political discussions are a primary method of influencing others’ opinions. However, debates have a nasty habit of getting bogged down in squabbles over the definitions of particular words.

Fights over the definition of a word in debates stem from the fact that the person who controls a debate’s language controls the debate itself. For example, in the debate over abortion pro-lifers fight an uphill battle in part because pro-abortionists refer to an unborn baby as “a fetus,” “tissue,” and “it.” Even pro-lifers tend to use these terms in casual conversations about abortion.

Skilled politicians and thinkers, recognizing the benefits of linguistic control of an issue, often manipulate language to serve their ends. Before the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks called for “Peace, Land, and Bread,” which brilliantly appealed to Russian peasants’ desire for these goods. Architects of the French Revolution used the slogan “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”), exploiting French commoners’ desire to overthrow their government and class system. And today pro-abortion activists use the phrase “safe, legal, and rare” to describe their supposed goal for abortion, no matter how illusory the fulfillment of that slogan has been in reality.

Of course, when rival debaters use the same word(s) to defend their respective positions, linguistic chaos can ensue. For example, discussions about same-sex marriage often degenerate into shouting matches, since both sides of the debate have conflicting definitions of marriage.  Supporters of same-sex marriage tend to define marriage as a legal contract granting recognition of a consensual relationship, while opponents of same-sex marriage tend to define marriage as an institution for the stable rearing of children. Linguistic conflict can also occur in economic debates. For example, liberals consider “spending cuts” to be a reduction in the rate of increase in government spending, whereas libertarians or conservatives view “spending cuts” as actual reductions in government spending.

Advocates of liberty should never yield the linguistic high ground to opponents, since winning the linguistic war is half the battle in any debate.

Paul Wilson About Paul Wilson

Paul Wilson is a media analyst at the Culture and Media Institute, who is also seeking his master’s degree in history at the Catholic University of America. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulWilson34.