Every era generates its own nonsensical political language. The number one meaningless word right now is “woke”, which is used to signify “any acknowledgment of racism or sexism”, “expressing an opinion while black or female”, or just “a new thing that I don’t like”. I’ve tried to identify some of today’s other bogus political words and phrases:
• “Freedom”: typically used by US libertarians to signify “my freedom, not yours”. When they invoke “freedom”, they usually mean, “I should be free to do what I like, whether it’s buying a gun, driving my car through your city or not wearing a mask.” They don’t acknowledge the trade-offs; their freedoms restrict other people’s freedom to go outside safely or not catch Covid-19. The case study of “my freedom, not yours” is self-proclaimed “free-speech absolutist” Elon Musk letting authoritarian regimes censor content on Twitter.
• “Conservative”, “populist”: both terms are routinely applied to Trump-style movements. However, these movements are anything but “conservative” in that they aim to destroy traditional institutions. “Populism” did once have an agreed academic meaning — Cas Mudde defined it as the idea that politics was a clash between the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite” — but this clarity has been lost in popular debate. The best word to describe Trumpian movements is usually “nativist” or “far-right”.
• “Witch-hunt”: a phrase that has become the first refuge of any political scoundrel in legal trouble. Anyone tempted to believe it without asking for corroborating evidence should reflect that it has been used by speakers with the credibility of George Santos, the Republican congressman charged with fraud, and Donald Trump before him.
• “The media” (or “mainstream media”): a meaningless phrase because there are countless very different media, which don’t act in concert.
• “Not a panacea”: a phrase often used to criticise a particular policy, but meaningless because no intervention in society is a panacea.
• “Gets it”: a social media phrase that is used to mean “agrees with me”.
• “Not perfect”: often used to defend a political regime, as in, “My country’s government is not perfect, but . . . ” In truth, since no human creation is perfect, the phrase is intended only to deflect valid criticism.
• “Fake news”: in 2016, this meant factories of low-paid trolls producing false content that masqueraded as news on Facebook. Trump — today’s leading producer of bogus political language — repurposed the phrase to mean any news story inconvenient to the speaker.
• “We will meet this target by 2030, 2050, etc”: this means, “It’s up to future leaders to decide whether they will make any sacrifices to meet this target.”
• “Sustainable luxury”, “sustainable flying”, etc: usually means something like, “We have cut the carbon emissions of our packaging by 7 per cent, so buy more of our stuff.”
• “Critical race theory”, “gender theory”, “Marxism”: terms mostly used by nativists who have read precisely zero works from any of these fields.
• “Cancelled”: some people have genuinely been deprived of public platforms or even sacked for saying things that were perceived (often wrongly) to be bigoted. Usually, though, people who claim to have been “cancelled” mean “criticised”, “convicted of sexual assault”, “replaced by somebody who isn’t an overt bigot” or simply “ignored”. I’ll always remember the obscure French writer who told me that Le Monde was “boycotting” his books.
• “Community”: often used to mean “ethnic group”, as in the “Jewish community”, “Hispanic community”, “black community”, etc. The pretence is that all “Hispanics”, for instance, are united. You can then go and see their “community leaders” — often self-appointed elderly men — who will tell you what the “community” wants. The word is typically used by white people who would never consider themselves members of the “white community”. They think they are individuals, with their own views.
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” wrote George Orwell in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” (the complete guide on how to write in just 13 pages). He lists other “worn-out and useless” words and phrases that were disappearing in his day: jackboot, Achilles heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno. The same fate later befell words overused in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks: “heroes” (a euphemism for victims) and “greatest country on earth” (meaning largest military and GDP). People were also eventually shamed out of saying “international community” or “resigning to spend time with my family”. As Orwell said, you can only think clearly once you ditch meaningless words.
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