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  • Saturday, May 07, 2005


    False Signifiers of Our Times

    I commented some time ago about survey findings which showed many Americans are confused about the meanings of common political terms: Left and Right, Liberal and Conservative.

    Of late, I've become convinced that many people do not know the meanings of many more words used in public debate and discourse. Or rather, they create a definition based on particular uses of the words. I believe people develop tribal definitions depending the group they identify with. Thus, a word like "leftist" is defined primarily through peer group context. Here is an obvious example: If a conservative media personality says the word leftist, she implies many negative traits to anyone identified as such. The listener, the sympathetic audience, develops a definition which might include synonyms like communist, murderer (of unborn children), violent protester, dupe of foreign governments, hater of the USA, etc.

    While words often have a dictionary definition, they also have nuanced cultural and subcultural definitions which are more difficult to map. I'm sure someone must be looking at this process but I don't think I've read anything about it. This is different, I think, than the Public Relations/advertising trend to emphasize certain positive words in political speech. Frank Lutz is a prime example of this for Republicans. George Lakoff has attempted similar tactics for progressives (his preferred term.)

    I think this phenomenon of redefining words by peer or identity group contributes greatly to miscommunication and anger. A phrase like "people of faith," when used by anti-judicial conservatives, refers to a very specific group of "people of faith," not all "people of faith." I see reference to "code words" in the media, usually meaning when a politician uses a word or phrase particularly meaningful to a particular group but less understandable to other people. I contend that much of our public debate is full of unintentional code words, words used one way and interpreted many different ways.

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