Winning the Semantic Battle

I comment frequently to my students that if you win the semantic battle, you can often win the war. How you frame yourself or your belief system/cause is extremely important, and if you can create an image that is positive, while not being dishonest, you can draw people to your side.

Unfortunately, that also works for those with less integrity. Margaret Sanger, for instance, the great promoter of eugenics and lowering the birth rates of those she deemed “human weeds,” cleverly called her organization Planned Parenthood. That sounds very respectable, doesn’t it? I mean, what would be the alternative—chaotic parenthood? In this way, she and her followers have fooled many and garnered support they wouldn’t have won if those erstwhile supporters really had understood Sanger’s agenda.

The same is true in politics. I’m no great fan of polls, particularly opinion polls on politicians and their job-approval ratings. Those change with the wind, and the public seems to vote based on the emotion of the day. There are some polls/surveys, however, that reveal more precisely the thought—or lack thereof—of the electorate. For instance, Pew Research has just released a new survey that looks at the favorability of a number of political labels. Here’s the breakdown on how the public perceives certain words:

  • Progressive: 67% favorable
  • Conservative: 62% favorable
  • Liberal: 50% favorable
  • Capitalism: 50% favorable
  • Libertarian: 38% favorable
  • Socialist: 31% favorable

Notice that there is scant approval for socialism. Yet the highest ranking term is “progressive,” which is the same thing as socialism. Voters seem to understand that socialism is not a positive thing, but they are unable to discern that what they dislike about socialism is fully present in progressivism. That’s why those who have a socialist bent rarely use that word; they use “progressive” instead. It’s more positive-sounding, right? Again, who wants to be the opposite of progressive—a “regressive” person? That sounds too much like “turning back the clock,” which is another phrase that has a negative connotation [an undeserved connotation since turning back the clock would be quite beneficial in some ways].

We perish for a lack of knowledge, which leads to a lack of understanding, which in turn leads to foolish decisions. Those who grasp the strategy need to begin framing their Biblical and constitutional beliefs in words that convey the wisdom of those beliefs. We need to win the semantic battle if we ever hope to win the overall cultural war.