4 min read

Stop Taking the Bait on Bad Faith Debates About Word Choices

Stop Taking the Bait on Bad Faith Debates About Word Choices

There are a lot of rolling debates about specific word choices in political discourse that have very little to do with winning elections, securing policy victories or even the actual word choices political advocates make. In fact, a lot of this discourse seems to involve evidence-free claims and needlessly repeating right wing talking points about progressive activists and Democratic elected officials.

A recent New York Times, column for instance, fixates on the use of the term "women" going so far as to claim that gender-inclusive language about "pregnant people" has caused Planned Parenthood's home page to skip referring to women. In fact, the organization's home page follows best practices in user design by referring to visitors as "you" as in: "Confused about new laws that change how and where you can get safe, legal abortion? We're here for you." The website also has thousands of instances of the word "woman" or "women" as well as plenty of information for transgender people and people seeking information on behalf of pregnant women, all of which is easily confirmed with a quick Google search of the organization's website.

So what's going on here? In my experience, these linguistic debates are largely driven by the right and are intended to obfuscate policy debates, replacing discussions of material reality with tedious linguistic pedantry. Indeed, as right wingers have finally overturned Roe v. Wade one of their propagandists is promoting a film in which he repeatedly asks people to define "woman" and then pretends not to understand the difference between gender and sex. Republicans similarly tried to bait Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson with this line of questioning at her confirmation hearing then still pretended to be upset when she politely refused to take the bait.

These propaganda efforts are also specifically targeted at people who work with words for a living — in this case, journalists and columnists — as well as liberals who can easily get jerked around by resulting media coverage, hoping there's some linguistic solution to well-funded, bad faith right wing propaganda. (There is not.)

No content analysis. Most of the time, these discussions don't involve any level of content analysis. Are Democrats really harping on and on about "Latinx?" Instead of searching Congressional transcripts, ad databases or social media posts from candidates, we're usually left with blind assertions or anecdotal examples — often not even from candidates — that are supposedly preventing Democrats from winning elections or advocates from securing policy victories.

No clear agency. Who is in charge of advocacy group or Democratic messaging? Is it Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, James Clyburn, and non-profits boards and CEOs? Or is it nameless university professors and young staffers? Even if you buy the premise that people who are very far removed from running the multi-billion-dollar political and influence industries are the proverbial tail wagging the dog, shouldn't the onus still be on political leaders to change that dynamic? Presumably, if these problems are so persistent, then perhaps repeatedly begging people to use different messaging in columns and TV interviews doesn't work.

Debates about word choices elevate debates about word choices. If you truly think "defund the police" is a problem for Democrats, one of the most sensible things you can do as a political actor is to never utter the phrase again, even to criticize it, since criticism simply draws more attention to the phrase and associates it with (usually unnamed) activists and party members. NBC's Mehdi Hasan is a particularly incisive interviewer and one of the few journalists to pose this conundrum to a Democratic leader, but because Democrats themselves are trapped debating word choices in mainstream media outlets, it's very difficult to have this sort of meta-conversation about messaging and media coverage while discussing messaging in the media.

These sort of hall-of-mirrors thought exercises were really fun when studying political communication in school, but the actual practice of politics is thankfully a lot more straightforward: you try to get your good, well-framed message repeated more often than your opposition to specific audiences. Talking about messaging you don't like while you're literally on TV or waxing about some of your party's negative perceptions to a national-level reporter remains a baffling choice to me, but a lot of these debates are about attempting to punch left for ideological and policy reasons, not earnest attempts to win elections or persuade voters.

While political science can offer us a lot of insight into which messages perform better or worse with specific audiences, the actual effect of word choices in practice is often quite limited. But the effect of seeing a message a dozen times versus never seeing it is obviously quite strong and much closer to the actual practice of politics, including advocacy, organizing, earned media and paid media. It's where I'd encourage writers, editors and producers to focus much more of their attention.

Ultimately, these meta-debates are often grounded in a transactional view of politics in which elites debate which Good Messaging to send to the masses. But messaging does not generate attention, action and provocation do. The political actors who internalize these lessons are much more likely to win public debates and elections because their messages will be repeated and seen more often by their audiences. I just hope it's the ones who want to fight for civil rights and material benefits instead of against them.

I'm a political communicator by training and have been looking for a home for writing, podcasts and videos on these topics. If you have a specific idea that involves an existing organization or funding, please contact me.

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