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Barth Keck

Last month, I wrote about “social-emotional learning” and how SEL has been redefined by some conservative groups to mean “the latest public-school program to ‘indoctrinate kids’ with ‘progressive ideology,’ especially as it pertains to sexual identity.”

It is, I opined, a classic example of people craftily employing words to promote a particular narrative, a concept George Orwell details in “Politics and the English Language.”

Since the time my op-ed appeared, a Supreme Court opinion penned by Justice Samuel Alito was leaked indicating the Court was positioned to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Perhaps no issue better illustrates the power of language to frame an issue than the abortion debate.

Alito’s language in his leaked opinion is a prime example. “He used terms like abortionists instead of abortion providers,” explained NPR’s Leila Fadel.

In her report, Fadel interviewed Carol Sanger, a professor at Columbia Law School, who noted how Alito “points out that in the old days – i.e., before two days ago – we called fetuses potential life in Casey and in Roe. But here now we’re calling them unborn children. So that’s another way of rhetorically changing how we think about what this is all about.”

Clearly, the abortion debate has been fraught with loaded language for decades, beginning with the way the opposing sides have labeled themselves: “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice.” This simplistic dichotomy sets up a “false dilemma” – a logical fallacy that “presents only two options or sides when there are many options or sides.”

“The necessity to condense our beliefs into one word or phrase like ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice’ or even ‘feminist’ has resulted in miscommunication and division,” writes Lauren Seminack, an editorial assistant for the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University. “When we condense our complex beliefs into simple labels, we risk miscommunicating the diverse opinions we are trying to express.”

Among the complex questions that make up the abortion debate is the point at which life begins.

“Abortion opponents have long stressed what they believe is the humanity of a fetus, protesting at rallies and in front of abortion clinics with signs that read ‘Abortion Stops a Beating Heart,’” reports The New York Times.

However, “This is nothing like what we would think of as a four-chambered heart,” according to Sarah Horvath, a family planning fellow with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, referring to the ultrasound-generated sound from a fetus that has not yet developed cardiac valves. “The scientific words are getting conflated with a term that has emotional significance.”

And therein lies the problem with reducing complex issues to simplistic, loaded words: An issue is deliberately misrepresented and politicized, disregarding any nuance. People of all political persuasions do it. The so-called “woke” crowd – itself an inexact and loaded term – successfully recast Florida’s new law forbidding discussion of gender identity in grades K-3 as the “Don’t Say Gay” law even though the measure does not forbid use of the word “gay.”

Democrats have used language strategically in other instances – the term “mandatory buybacks” of guns rather than “confiscation” comes to mind. But it’s the Republicans who have been much more effective, historically, in fashioning language to their advantage.

Longtime GOP strategist Frank Luntz is a master at using language to help his party. He convinced Newt Gingrich to call his 1994 political manifesto that helped Republicans regain control of the U.S. House and Senate a “Contract with America” because “a contract is different. A contract says that it is a legal document. It says that you put your name on it, and it says that there is enforcement if you don’t do it. The word ‘contract’ means something different than ‘platform.’”

In a similar fashion, Luntz helped turn public opinion against the estate tax by calling it a “death tax.”

“Look, for years, political people and lawyers – who, by the way, are the worst communicators – used the phrase ‘estate tax.’ And for years they couldn’t eliminate it,” explained Luntz in “The Persuaders,” a 2004 Frontline documentary. “The public wouldn’t support [its elimination] because the word ‘estate’ sounds wealthy. Someone like me comes around and realizes that it’s not an estate tax, it’s a death tax, because you’re taxed at death. And suddenly something that isn’t viable achieves the support of 75 percent of the American people.”

As much as Luntz tries to convince us that his linguistic hocus-pocus “is not about politics” or “selling soap,” that’s exactly what he’s doing: peddling politicized ideology through language. In fact, he basically admits his ulterior motive as he tries to deny it: “This is taking very traditional, simple, clear-cut words of the English language and figuring out which words, which phrases to apply at which opportunities, at which times.”

Apparently, this is one of those times for fine-tuning political language. Just ask Christina Pushaw. In response to liberals’ opposition to the Florida law regarding LGBTQ discussions in the classroom, the press secretary for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tweeted, “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming bill you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children. Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules.”

Tweet from Christina Pushaw, spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Tweet from Christina Pushaw, spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Credit: Screengrab from Twitter / Office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

That appalling accusation gave conservatives a new loaded buzzword – “groomers” – one now used online routinely to label teachers, including yours truly, who dare to support LGBTQ discussions at school. Excuse me for objecting, but accusing teachers of “deliberately establishing an emotional connection with a child to prepare the child for child abuse” – the legal definition of grooming – is flat-out wrong. Not to mention, barbarous, tactless, and creepy. But if the language advances an agenda, so be it, say these people.

Words have always mattered. But now, seemingly, they matter more than ever.

Barth Keck is in his 32nd year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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