gender, language, politics

Words to Watch Out For

November 8, 2016 is closer than you think. So it’s time to start paying attention to how influential people are talking and how their language choices will influence our ways of thinking. Here are a few expressions you might be on the lookout for, generally from our friends on the right:


Playing the race card

Playing the gender card

Special interests

Class warfare


These phrases are not benign, and it is important to understand what they have in common and how they do their work.


“The race card” feels like an ancient part of American political discourse, but in fact its first written citation dates only from 1989. It came to prominence during (surprise!) the O.J. Simpson trial, so most of us have known it for only about 20 years. As you may recall, it was put in play by the prosecution in that trial, with reference to defense attorney Johnnie Cochran’s suggestion that a prosecution witness, Mark Fuhrman, a police officer who was present at the murder scene, might well have fabricated or destroyed evidence to favor Simpson’s guilt. Why would he have done that? Because, Cochran intimated, he was an avowed racist: he had been known to use the “n” word.


“Playing the race card” is defined by various sources as using someone’s race in order to get away with a questionable argument. To use the phrase correctly, the speaker must not only be using race or racism as a reason for something, but that claim must be illegitimate. There must be no obvious or logical connection between, say, Fuhrman’s alleged racism and his behavior in the collection and preservation of evidence. But if in fact Cochran could prove that Fuhrman was driven by a desire to prove O.J. guilty based on hatred of black people to misbehave, then no race card is being played. If the charge is relevant, no race card is in play.


So for instance, looking at the astonishing number of unarmed young black males who have been killed by white police officers, many people have argued that there is an element of racism involved. Is that argument an instance of “playing the race card”?


It might be if (for instance) a proportional number of unarmed white men had been killed by black police officers; or if whites had been killed by white police officers or blacks by black police officers. Then alleging racism in the white killing black cases could be a case of playing the race card. But in fact, none of these other possibilities exists; the white-on-black case stands by itself. The only rational argument I can see is that there is a racial, and indeed racist, element in police forces across the nation. Based on statistics, making this claim cannot be called “playing the race card.” Race is not irrelevant; racism is the truth. Truth is an absolute defense against charges of “playing the race card.”


While I don’t expect “the race card” to figure prominently in 2016 (unless Ben Carson is the Republican candidate), it is important to understand its history and implications in order to deal with “the gender card”, which has already shown up, not much to my surprise. That term was put in play just a week or two ago, by Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, accusing Hillary Rodham Clinton of doing so.


McConnell was commenting on a speech in which Clinton said that gender inequality of several kinds – economic, legal, and psychological – still existed in America. She remarked that that was one argument for the election of a woman president. She might have (but did not) clarified the connection between the two statements by pointing out that gender inequity needed to be addressed and undone; and that she, as a woman who had experienced some of those inequities, and had worked personally to fix them, was more likely than any of her male opponents to make those changes. Assuming those claims are valid and that they underlie her explicit points, McConnell’s charge of “playing the gender card” makes no sense: gender is relevant in the 2016 election.


McConnell went on to smirk that anyway he was not afraid to fight a woman, because he had and he had bested her. (He was referring to his 2014 victory over Alison Lundergan Grimes.) Ironically, this was an example of playing the gender card – the male gender card – presuming that all women are the same and equally unworthy, with no evidence adduced in support of that claim and therefore the argument being irrelevant to our choice in 2016. But the male gender card, like so many male behaviors, is unmarked, normal, and invisible, so it was perfectly OK.


By this kind of talk, McConnell (and anyone else who talks this way) is attempting to shut off any discussion of women’s issues, and to embarrass anyone who mentions them. Anyone who supports the interests of people other than wealthy straight white Christian males is shameful, from this perspective, and needs to be run out of town on a rail, of course after being tarred and feathered. Conservatives are highly proficient at this blame-and-shame game. If in fact you don’t have ethical issues to propose, all you can do is embarrass your opponents, shut them up and leave them looking like the bad ones.


In a related strategy, they suggest that using divisive tactics (we’re right; they’re wrong) is wrong — as long as the divisiveness comes from the left. The right can be as divisive and self-promoting as it likes. Unfortunately, the left is incapable of fighting back. That would be uppity; that would not be ladylike.


Grasping both of these points helps make sense of the other two items on the list, which we will be seeing lots more of shortly. Conservatives use “special interests” to mock the liberal (oops, I mean progressive) agenda. “Special” means “not white upper-class straight Christian male.” So abortion and contraception (oops, I mean reproductive rights) are special interests and not worthy of our support: special interests are the interests of others, the not-us. Protesting the killing of unarmed black men by white police officers is a case of special interests. Changing the tax code so it is less beneficial to the 1% is a special interest.


Calling these arguments “special interests” works because it embarrasses liberals. It suggests that those who are calling for these changes are selfish and greedy, wanting to be treated as “special” rather than like nice, normal folks who ask for nothing (because they have a lot already).


And finally, there is “class warfare,” which comes up whenever the suggestion is made that America needs to reform its banking system, punish the use of subprime mortgages, change the tax code, make medical care available to all, mitigate income inequality, and so on. But when the rich and their conservative friends press for the continuation of the current system that has made them obscenely wealthy, that somehow is not class warfare. “Warfare” is “class” when it attacks those on top, but normal unmarked proper behavior when it oppresses those on the bottom. And who wants to be a warmonger? Again, the liberal agenda sounds so…unfair.


Liberals, eager to be helpful, do their best to create a political discourse lethal to themselves. Just as our discomfort with “liberal” and “abortion” led us to switch to namby-pamby alternatives that weakened our arguments, we find both feminism and “feminism” so intolerable to decent people everywhere that we can’t even come up with a euphemism. We are so afraid of criticism that we knuckle under rather than kicking back, and we tie ourselves in knots to look and sound something…nicer. But when we change our names (and ourselves) under duress, we do not make our ideas more acceptable to anyone, least of all to those who are trying to embarrass us. We show that we are weak and spineless, that we have no ideas we consider worth fighting for, any more than we have a name we can own proudly.


If we are not to become both speechless and irrelevant, we have to take control of language – our own and that of our adversaries. We have to fight back when language is used for illegitimate control. Language control provides political control, and political control legitimizes language control. If we let those who want to keep things as they have always been use language deceptively and manipulatively, we will continue to live in a world that brings us to despair.