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Magic Words

The incredible Burt Wonderstone

So much of what passes for persuasion and dialogue today is instead just empty, vacuous abuse of language. Chicanery.

In the classic “Politics and the English Language”--which should be required reading in every high school in the country--George Orwell describes an incredibly common phenomenon--the abuse of language:

Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like “Marshal Petain was a true patriot,” “The Soviet press is the freest in the world,” “The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution,” are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

Freddie DeBoer, himself a man of the left who is no fan of conservatism or Christianity , puts it this way:

One of the things I discovered early, in my little political niche, was the obsession with magic words. Leftists were forever throwing emotionally loaded terms around, like when the coffeehouse didn’t have raw sugar and they called it fascism. It’s not really hard to understand why: when you have no power, you resort to mysticism. You instill words with powers they can’t really have because you’re desperate to feel in control of something, anything.

Magic words--that’s a good way to put it. The jist of it is merely employing certain good (or bad, depending) sounding words that carry a rhetorical punch, but in the end are empty and used in mendacious ways. These words are about as meaningful and concrete as “hocus pocus,” but they often have a bewitching effect, partly because the “BS detector” part of our minds is so atrophied by an anemic intellectual diet.

Two common examples are “compassion” and “kindness.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with compassion and kindness. Christians are commanded to be so. The problem is when the words are weaponized, and the speaker, in a subtle form of linguistic smuggling, stuffs them with their political ideology and other content that doesn’t belong. Celebrating Pride month is kind. Open borders immigration policy is compassionate. Having a problem with expansion of government entitlement programs is cruel. Wanting Roe V Wade to be overturned is mean. That sort of thing. You get the picture. Say certain magic words and people shudder. Say different magic words and people ooh and ahh. Plastering you and your beliefs with the magic words causes an emotional reaction. Sometimes just indirectly associating you with the magic words is enough to do the trick. Merely asserting is enough. The well has been poisoned. No real engagement with your view is needed.

This is compassionate--- “ooohh.” That is uneducated-- “brrrr.” I am for equality-- “aaaahh.” You are anti-equality-- shhhiverrrr. You probably kick puppies too.

We are the party of “science." You are the party of old white men and medieval superstition. Well--so the thought goes--I don’t want to be anti-science, and old must mean bad, so why don’t I join you in your quest for utopia? Like I said, magic words. Empty of meaning as “kazaam!” but full of causal powers. Just say the words. Do conservatives, Christians, and/or Republicans do this? Yes, frequently. The left has made a cottage industry out of it, though. It’s the native tongue of, especially, the Social Justice Left. It is their go-to tactic when it comes to influencing young minds to join their cause. Spencer Case adds, “this sort of messaging might be useful for firing up opposition to (certain) policies, but it manipulates the audience by attempting to bypass their rationality. In rhetoric like this, the primary function of words is to transmit emotion, not meaning. Terms are hollow, like linguistic Trojan horses intended to smuggle associations into the conscious mind’s periphery without the higher brain noticing the security breach.”

Either way, no matter who is doing it, it is necessary that parents teach them how to recognize when magic words are being used to twist their arms and fool them into jumping on shady bandwagons, so your kids can persevere and stand firm in Truth for the long haul.

Not all uses of emotional words and language with heavy connotative meaning are out of bounds. Sometimes the shoe fits. “Abortion is murder” is one instance, since murder by definition is the unjust killing of innocent human beings, and that is exactly what abortion is. While I don’t have space to flesh that out, go here for more if interested to get the details.

It is one thing to use heavy words backed up by logic. It’s another to use them as empty talismans in place of logic via linguistic theft, smuggling, and inflation.** Help your kids spot the difference so they can resist the deceit.

**I am borrowing the first two terms from Hillary Morgan Ferrer and Amy Davison, the latter term from Spencer Case.

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