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Bad Language

Thinking about yesterday's post on the "strong" and "weak" language that afflicts the currency debate, it's really striking how the masculine, muscular language always attaches to the conservative position in a given debate. "Hard" power, for people who want to invade random countries, as opposed to "soft" power, for people who believe in diplomacy. "Inflation hawk," for people who think the Federal Reserve should focus on inflation, as opposed to "inflation dove," for people who think it should concentrate of ensuring full employment. Supporter of a "strong" dollar, for people who want to tilt America toward imports, as opposed to supporters of a "weak" dollar, for people who want to tilt America toward exports.

Is there any policy debate where the traditionally conservative position is associated with weaker language?

By Ezra Klein  |  October 13, 2009; 9:50 AM ET
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I don't know the answer to your question but the language difference points to underlying narcissistic forces that point people to their respective political positions I suspect.

Posted by: simmonslcsw | October 13, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Strong regulation vs. weak regulation.

Strong public option vs. weak public option.

Posted by: MaynardTool | October 13, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Peacekeeper Missile, a term for a nuclear device might fit the bill.

Posted by: rmgregory | October 13, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Hence the "Mommy" party versus the "Daddy" party language, but wanting strong control and regulation is not the conservative position.

Posted by: dwc2 | October 13, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

compassionate conservatism? but i really don't know what that term means. does anybody?

Posted by: dolly4444 | October 13, 2009 10:17 AM | Report abuse

the only recollection i have of language seeming "softer" in a conservative dialogue, was when bush talked about faith based social initiatives.
and when george bush, sr. frequently used the term, " a thousand points of light." and the desire for "a kinder, gentler nation." through volunteerism. those are the only times i can remember softer language.

i think in general, strident, opague opinions can be described with forceful language.
but more philosophical and nuanced positions, i think are expressed in a more complex and multi-layered manner.
when an argument is less dogmatic and more intellectual, as progressive arguments often are, the emotional aspects of the discussion do become softer, more explanatory, more humanistic, more reliant on a greater breadth of examination and knowledge. and that seems to change the vocabulary.

Posted by: jkaren | October 13, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

its nice now you term the idea of "strong" as bad and "weak" as good.

Is a strong country bad and a weak country good?

Should we celebrate inflation in Ezra's world?

Posted by: visionbrkr | October 13, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse

It's an interesting question, and people have been able to find, in cases of domestic policy, where strength is associated with the liberal position. But trying to make the case that the prevailing characterizations of liberal foreign policy are just linguistic constructs will be difficult. School children are taught that refraining from striking back shows real strength. It will take the infantilization of the public to get the majority to see it this way.

Posted by: truck1 | October 13, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

See also Christopher M. Loomis, The Politics of Uncertainty: Lobbyists and Propaganda in Early Twentieth-Century America, Journal of Policy History - Volume 21, Number 2, 2009, pp. 187-213.

Posted by: rmgregory | October 13, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

"its nice now you term the idea of "strong" as bad and "weak" as good."

Hey, what post was this in? 'Cause it sure as heck isn't in THIS post, and I'd like to read it.

Posted by: colby1983 | October 13, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Interesting question, I think this is more a question of PR and marketing (e.g. George Lakoff has written about this pretty extensively in the case of "framing").

In politics and advertising generally, language usually seems to be used more as a form of compensation. The "compassionate conservative" idea is a case in point. The very fact that "compassionate" needed to be slapped on "conservative" indicated that someone the 2000 Bush campaign found problems with the conservative branding. The addition of "compassionate" was their way of fixing the "conservative" and expanding the reach of the party beyond the base.

As far as "Inflation Hawk" and "Inflation Dove" go, the labeling doesn't make much sense. In terms of proper definitions it would make more sense to call it: "People who want to raise interest rates" and "People who want to keep interest rates low right now". That would be the most neutral description possible. Unfortunately, those labels require a discussion of the policy conflict; whereas the "Hawk," "Dove" labels allow a circumvention of the debate altogether.

Instead of "Hawk" and "Dove" I propose that we use "Stupids" and "Smarts" (e.g. Inflation Stupids and Inflation Smarts). It won't elevate the tone of the debate, but effectively it would be at worst a lateral move in terms of the content of the domestic debate.

Posted by: JPRS | October 13, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

I think it relates to conservatives' preference for order (and hence authoritarianism) over complexity, anmbiguity, diversity, innovation etc. Simpler ideas, less nuance. But by no means better or, really, "stronger." It is just a worship of order, power, brute force if necessary.

Of course water, working subtly with cold, is the strongest substance in terms of erosion. Whole philosophies have been developed in the Eastern world using similar analogies. Try the Tao Te Ching for starters, or Sun Tzu.

Posted by: Mimikatz | October 13, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Conservatives prefer the soft term "enhanced interrogation" to to the hard term "torture."

Posted by: geoffcgraham | October 13, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Ezra keep pondering this stuff, there's a lot of potential there.

I've often wondered why the "soft" people let the "hard people take their language away from them, when marketing 101 says if the opposition hold the buzzwords, that's where the battle is: you have to fight for the language itself, and steal the keywords from the enemy.

Witness: billions of dollars spent branding Coca Cola, and 7-up takes a free ride on that investment with the "un-cola".

So, two forks to this: either take "strong" and demean it with qualifiers like "blindly" "rigidly" "scared" and such;

or, better, take their word "strong" and show how it applies to your position best, as in "strong caution," "strong restraint," "strong open-mindedness" - the playground is pretty large once you decide to be strong about your softness, and strike instead of wilt.

Posted by: rosshunter | October 13, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Liberals could employ phraseology like "soft on guns," "soft on pollution," etc., pretty much wherever the left/liberal position is for more regulation. Now, a query: Do liberals fail to do so? or refuse? It is sort of unbecoming to turn policy questions into contests who can outmacho the other.

Posted by: tblogg | October 13, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Of course the problem here is how people associate the language terms. Ezra, you didn't include what might be the ultimate example Democrat->Left and Republican->Right. These associations came to exist based on sides of the chamber where parties sat/sit. However, this is hardly a rationale for choosing parties despite past thinking that left handedness was wrong or backward, associated with bastards and evil. Then there is also the other interpretation of 'right' as 'correct.'

Such thinking has the same validity as anything focused on 'language' in place of reality or results.

My own view of this is that as there are many surprising and counter-intuitive truths in science so there are in life. Anyone unwilling to understand the true meaning and content lives in dark ignorance just like that guy, visionbrkr, who has commented and thinks that inflation is always bad.

I don't have a great example of where the language cuts the other way. However, I will diverge a bit to make this point: when the Republicans emphasize individual responsibility completely void of any shared responsibility they fail to put the onus on those people they ostensibly want to be responsible. Republicans have no interest in answering the following questions:
what barriers to self sufficiency exist?
why do they exist?
how might they be removed so that those affected by them have no excuse to avoid their individual responsibility?

Posted by: bcbulger | October 13, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Taking a page from rosshunter, one point I would make is that as substances become more hard they also become more brittle.

Posted by: bcbulger | October 13, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

One thing I always have trouble with is when I tell people I want an expanded welfare state. Instead of the concept of social welfare it brings forth images of the actual program of Welfare, which the right has effectively tarred as a hand-out to shiftless layabouts. "State" is also a word foreign to our discourse and brings to mind Statism. I've tried out alternatives like, "Social Security State" or "Economic Opportunity State" but haven't landed on a label that really works well yet. So anyone have any ideas for a good catch-all term for the Progressive view of the role of government?

Posted by: MattMilholland | October 13, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

It's odd how stereotypically authoritarian so much conservative language is: "soft on" this, "tough on" that, "show them," "teach them a lesson".... It's like the GOP is the party of impotent old men compensating for small penises, or something.

Posted by: freemarketanticapitalist | October 13, 2009 11:37 PM | Report abuse

LBJ made social welfare sound stronger by calling his program the "War on Poverty."

Posted by: tim37 | October 14, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

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