A dozen years ago I was giving a talk on sexual purity to couples in a marriage preparation program. I could tell by their semi-hostile fidgeting I was losing them so though I was a bit afraid of what might come, I stopped and asked them to tell me what was bothering them.
As they peppered me with objections, I gradually realized they did not understand the word “lust.” They took it to mean “libido,” and therefore when I told them about John Paul II’s identifying lust and domination as two false imitations of love, they were getting the message the Church condemns the natural sexual desire of spouses. I was speaking the truth, faithfully imparting the Pope’s words – and yet woefully miscommunicating because I assumed everyone shared my vocabulary.
Don’t you find that sort of miscommunication happens in our political discourse all the time as well? We all use the same vocabulary words, but we’re often talking past each other – and everyone’s grown so defensive that we’re quick to complain about being misunderstood and slow to listen with ears that hear how the person is using the language so we can meet the objection and have a real discussion.
Here are four other examples. Perhaps in comments you can suggest others.
1. Capitalism. Conservatives bristle when anyone criticizes “capitalism,” but I contend that if you listen not to the word they use but to the phenomenon they describe, most people are not criticizing the free market system, but their lack of access to it. They are criticizing the cronyism that reigns today.
We may still call our system “capitalist,” but in fact little of the market is free. Our economy is increasingly shaped by un-elected bureaucrats in the federal agencies who collude with friends in Big Business to create rules that privilege large corporations, often to the exclusion of start-ups, family businesses, the middle class and the working poor.
The ideological Left deliberately calls this corruption “capitalism” as a means to undermine people’s confidence in free markets. (Then- HHS Secretary Sebelius’ famous appearance on The Daily Show was a classic example. Stewart won praise even from Conservatives for a “tough interview,” but in fact the appearance was a set-up. Watch as Stewart allows Sebelius to call Obamacare a “market-based” system and to blame its disastrous roll-out on having to work within the limits of “capitalism” rather than on having the nation’s health care regulations written by big insurance companies and Planned Parenthood and their cronies in federal agencies. The purpose of that interview was not to subject Sebelius to scrutiny, but to pave the way for a single-payer system.)
Most people you run across are not hardened leftists deliberately mis-appropriating the word “capitalism” for propaganda purposes, however. They’re just using the word in the way they’ve heard it, and if those of us who favor limited government and a substantially free market wish to have a productive conversation about the economy, we need to quit pouncing when we hear “capitalism” criticized, acknowledge the justice of the complaints, propose how to confront the corruption of cronyism, and persuade people that our ideas will better help the poor, the middle class, families and workers.
Cronyism is the fruit not of the free market, but of Progressivism, which replaces government of the people, for the people and by the people with regulation by bureaucrats. Progressives (including those on the Right) gave us our current system. Let them defend it.
2. Entrepreneur. Speaking of workers, when small-government Conservatives say “entrepreneurs,” they are thinking of start-ups, small businesses (including family farms) – and the people they employ. Businesses of 50 employees or fewer employ one third of the work force. There’s a community dimension to small businesses too, as they often have a more humane and personal relationship with their employees than huge companies are able to. For Conservatives, therefore, “entrepreneur” is almost a romantic term, calling to mind the American dream, the hard work of our immigrant grandparents, or the pluck of the guy with the burrito cart who builds a franchise and is able to send his kids to college.
What most people today hear, however, is “Bosses,” especially bosses of huge corporations. People who think of themselves as “workers” – who can’t imagine starting a business and who are afraid because their wages buy less and less in this economy—don’t understand the term includes them and their needs.
3. American exceptionalism. It doesn’t mean Americans are inherently better than citizens of other nations. That kind of jingoism turns the term on its head. Most generations of Americans have recognized that we’re made of corruptible clay like all other men. What makes America exceptional is that her unifying principle is not race or ethnicity but that all human persons are created equal – and our collective commitment (at least until recently) to that principle. Our blessing is not in ourselves, but in the genius of our political institutions which have allowed us a degree of liberty not previously seen on earth and a better (though not sufficient) ground for human flourishing than other political systems.
You must have seen the pictures that circulate the internet periodically of women in Afghanistan in the 1950s studying medicine in the university. They’re a chilling reminder that there are no backwards peoples, only backwards and wicked systems. “American exceptionalism” reminds us that liberty is not inevitable; it is not the natural tendency towards which history inexhorably progresses. It can be lost and it requires continual re-dedication to its principles to maintain it.
4. Proportionality. Here is another term commonly used to indicate precisely the opposite of its actual meaning. During the fighting in Gaza these past weeks, I’ve heard a lot of commentators question whether Israel’s response to Hamas is “proportionate.” They seem to think it means that when Hamas fires rockets into Israel, Israel may only toss a few rockets back in response. I actually heard a reporter suggest Israel’s response has been disproportionate because more Palestinians have died than Israelis.
Ugh! “Proportionate response” does not mean you “get” to kill only as many of your enemy as they kill of you. That is precisely the barbaric vengeance mentality the Just War tradition and international law seek to overturn. In that tradition, “proportionate response” prohibits using more force than is necessary to achieve a legitimate and achievable end such as repelling an invader from your border or preventing your enemy from being able to attack you. I offer this not as an endorsement of everything Israel has done in Gaza, but simply to note it would be monstrous for Israel to kill “proportionately” in the sense too many of our reporters seem to mean think.
Can you cite other examples of political terms in common use that cause miscommunication?