“Coded” Language in Politics and Faith

[Ed note – Long, rambling post alert! Stop reading now if you don’t have the patience for that sort-of thing.]

I’m fascinated with the way people use language – or, at least, accuse other people of using language – as a way of unifying people around certain ideas.

I guess this technique has been around for quite a while – all of my life at least. Anyone who is even vaguely aware of the American political scene will instantly recognize catch phrases such as “sanctity of life” or “a woman’s right to choose.” Both of those phrases are very powerful ideas – people can readily identify each other based on the use of those phrases; a heavy dose of social and political ideas are attached to them.

The idea seems to be to find a way to say something that – on the surface – almost everyone will agree with. Life ought to be valued highly. Women ought to have the ability to make choices for themselves. Its hard to disagree with either statement in the abstract. “How can I disagree,” the listner will presumably conclude, “with someone who says that?” Yet, at the same time, the goal seems to be to use this language to identify (sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly) the “side” that a person is taking in a controversy.

Of course, its hard these days to think about ideas like “sanctity of life” and “right to choose” without immediately recognizing the ideologies behind them. But it wasn’t always so. There was a time – many, many years ago – where one might or might not know exactly what a politician was talking about when he or she conjured up these words.

Some phrases, I notice, are still designed to rally the “insider” troups around an idea that – publicly – might not be completely understood. It is a war of words that is designed to disguise the most controversial of ideas in the least controversial, divisive way possible. The ultimate linguistic game of “hide the ball.”

This, of course, engenders political paranoia on all sides of a controversy. Suddenly, becuase people are being so coy about how they express ideas, they are much more difficult targets. In order to mount an attack against an opponent, the attacker must make accusations about the use of “code words” that really mean something completely different from what is being expressed. Sometimes, the accusations are justified. Sometimes, they just make for terrific smoke screens. Always, the original speaker can defend herself against her critics by accusing them of hysteria and mischaracterization.

Here are a few of my favorites:

I support the troops.” Well, who doesn’t? I don’t want to see anyone die in Iraq, including the sons and daughters of American citizens. But we all know that this means a whole lot more, don’t we?

Lets get our troops out of harm’s way.” This is the counter-gambit from the anti-war folk. Who doesn’t agree with this? You don’t want our troops to be safe?! But we all know where you stand when you say this, too, don’t we?

Working for peace and democracy in the middle east.” More war rhetoric here – but I hope you can see again: an easily supported premise (on the surface) that carries a huge political punch.

Immigrants should obey the law.” Well, duh! Who can disagree that people ought to obey laws, even if they disagree with them. But the statement also evades the whole issue: are the laws, as they exist – just ones? How should they be changed in light of the immigrants’ plight? Should we reconsider the level of compassion that our laws show toward others? Have those laws been unfair? Those are all tougher questions. (In my view, both sides in this controversy are guilty of evading the real questions – have our laws been morally just to immigrants or not? And, if not, what can we do about it?)

Tax breaks for the rich.” I love this one! It sounds like a horrible, horrible thing, doesn’t it? Why should the rich get breaks, when the poor are obviously the ones that suffer? Problem is – if you’re going to cut taxes, the only people who can benefit are those who are paying taxes to begin with. Our system does not require that taxes be paid by those who are living in poverty. Thus, you can’t really have tax breaks for people who are allowed to keep all of the money they earn. The dems pull this one out every time someone starts preaching tax cuts, and the repubs have yet to find a simple, one liner type way to deal with it.

The reason that this fascinates me is because I’m now beginning to see accusations of “code language” in theological discussions in the churches of Christ – my faith tradition. Here are a few words that are now being accused of being loaded with argumentative baggage:

– “Consumer christians” and “religious goods and services”
– References to being “missional”
– “Spiritual warfare” (you’re thought to almost certainly be leaning toward a charismatic tradition if you use this phrase much)
– “Evangelistic”
– “Christian nation”
– “Our values”
– “God bless America”

I’m sure you will be shocked to hear this – but even the most honorable profession of the barrister is not exempt from this malicious practice. Yes, folks, its true – even lawyers have, on very rare occasion, been known to adopt an inadequately descriptive, but easy-to-agree-with catch phrase in an effort to persuade a judge or jury.

Is this an inevitable product of the culture wars and the creeping growth of the postmodern? Is there an argument to be made that it can be dishonest to use certain words or phrases that describe controversial ideas in ways that are “unfair” because they don’t fully express the idea? What are some of your favorite “code” phrases? Maybe this just a sign that my worldview is being shaped too strongly by my background in speech communication and law. I dunno.

Discussion, anyone?

Update: Here’s an interesting discussion on the question of whether the word “evangelical” has become a politically-loaded term.

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