If I’m writing unfair generalizations about people of political alignments in the US, I might come up with something like this:
If I’m accusing a person on the political right of stealing my car, he might defend himself a lot of ways. He could say he didn’t do it. He could say I gave him permission and forgot. He could say someone else stole it, or that I just lost it. He could even say “tough luck, man. take it back if you can.” It’s not that a person on the left is that different - they might use all the same excuses.
But only a person on the left would think to tell me that they personally define cars as having three wheels, and that they couldn’t have possibly “stolen my car” when the object in question has four.
That’s not the best example I’ve ever written, but it’s also not wrong: the left loves to play fast and loose with words, changing the meanings to whatever fits their needs best at the moment. I thought about writing a long explainer on how this works, but examples are probably better and faster here:
The term racist used to mean a person who thought another race was inferior and would mistreat them because of that; now it means either someone who isn’t actively working against Ibram Kendi’s very specific definition of racism or anyone who disagrees with the left-at-large on any matter pertaining to race whatsoever (see also: white supremacy).
Man and Woman used to refer to biological sex, but now refer to the sex one feels most comfortable being. For a while people were resistant to this, so the term gender was used as a stop-gap to explain the difference between the sex one physically born as and the gender one felt or wished they were, but that’s now done. Having amassed enough social momentum, nobody in the elite social left talks about gender anymore, but simply demands that trans women and trans men are women and men, full stop.
Note that in both cases, the terms replace another term that gave us useful information; most people are still interested in knowing how a person would be classified in the original sex definition. Enough people are interested in knowing if someone actually dislikes people of another race as opposed to not voting a left ticket that the phrase “actual racist” is in pretty heavy use at the street level.
But in both cases the people actually replacing the meanings of the word have shown very little interest in replacing the words themselves; the goal has always been to supplant the meanings, to excise a part of the language and replace it with a meaning meant to reinforce a certain worldview. So where man now doesn’t mean “a person born male who is an adult” there’s no proposal to actually give us a word that means the same thing; the idea is not only to create a new definition, but to destroy the old one as well.
Finally, note that while the meaning of the word has changed, there’s an implicit demand that the impact or weight that the word originally carried doesn’t. As an object example, recall the “punch nazis” Twitter rhetoric of a few years ago. Nazi had at that point already been redefined, like racist, to functionally mean “anyone who disagrees with us significantly on any matter of race whatsoever”. But at the same time the desired weight of the word was one where the people described deserved anything that happened to them, to include physical violence. Ditto racist, where anybody accused of it should lose their job and be banished from discourse. Ditto woman or man, where the demand is that the new definitions have the same implications as the old, crossing over into things like the implications on sports teams and if your romantic choices make you a bigot.
But directly redefining terms as opposed to changing the terms used is only one way this happens. As a example, the euphemistic treadmill is the exact opposite; the term itself is changed but not the direct meaning, which is hoped to change in the minds of people over time (think undocumented immigrant vs. illegal immigrant.).
This kind of control over words is powerful. The left often demands we change a word, and when successful demands that reality itself has changed to accommodate the new language standard. They control words that based on their historic meanings have tremendous power to condemn, but can contort the meanings in any direction that’s useful to them at the moment. Their ability to do this has changed the entire media and political landscape a huge amount in a distressingly short amount of time; it’s now pretty much accepted that any racial misstep (again, as defined by the left) is enough to get someone fired so they serve as a warning to anyone else who might step out of line.
I’m anonymous on Substack for this reason - it would be really, really easy for almost anyone on the left to declare I fall under the flexible definition of a word they control and absolutely destroy me; they’ve done it to much bigger and better defended people before. Couple that kind of power with the fact that the right is traditionally really, really bad at using the same tools and the reality that the left’s power to do this is greatly amplified by their near-complete control of mainstream and social media, and you can start to see how this power is a very, very big deal to them.
But recently I’ve begun to see what I think are signs that the power isn’t working as well anymore; if I’m right, it’s going to mean a sea change for the power of the left to persuade and convince the masses.
Part of the reason tactics like these work is because language is already pretty fluid even before we consider efforts to exploit that fluidity. To pick an example, consider the term weeaboo. It originated from a (very weird and possibly NSFW?) comic, and was later recast to mean something like “Anglo westerner who likes Japanese culture a lot”. The abbreviated term “weeb” is used that way, but also sometimes as generically as “mega-nerd”.
If a person who had just used weeb to mean “western person who likes Japanese culture a lot, possibly too much” was countered by someone saying “No, that’s not what that word means; the original use was to describe a very bizarre way of wasting company time in a weird comic”, they’d have a complaint: the description of the original usage is technically correct, but it’s also ignoring the way the use of the word has organically changed over time.
If 2021 has a buzzword besides “Covid” it’s probably CRT; you already know that this stands for critical race theory, and technically originally referred to a specific legal framework dealing with interactions between race and law. It’s also used at least sometimes to refer in a more general way to the same kind of interactions as the relate to the social and political. At the most vague end of things, CRT is often used as a derogative term by the right, often as a scare-quotes term meant to draw out a sort of “Weird and unreasonable race stuff the left is trying to pull” impression in listeners.
The right figured out that pushing the vague definition of CRT was an effective way of riling up their base, especially as applied to teaching regarding race, race relations and their implications in a K-12 environment. By doing this, they hoped to get parents who were concerned about how these things were being taught to recoil from the political/elite left, which broadly if subtly supports a method of teaching these things that might, say, rely on the writings of Ibram Kendi or similar writers with modern, relatively extreme views on racial issues. To some extent at least this was working; many parents were broadly worried about the issue.
I’m lucky in that I don’t actually have to interrogate which of the many definitions of CRT is the correct one; you can believe any or all of them are appropriate and it doesn’t affect what came next. What’s important is how the left tried to deal with the issue of parents being concerned about what was being taught in schools under any name, and the disaster this brought down on them.
Broadly, the left settled on a simple tactic: they would use their usually-ironclad control of words to point out that CRT was not being taught in schools in the sense that elementary school students weren’t literally being put through classes on CRT as it was defined in the “strictly a legal framework taught in legal school” sense. This was technically true, but they then tried to leverage it into a much more daring move: trying to convince parents that since CRT wasn’t being taught in schools by their narrow definition, that nothing the parents could reasonably object to was happening in schools, and that being at all concerned about any potential teachings in that vein was irrational and possibly racist.
That sounds really harsh, but here’s Terry McAuliffe making that argument and invoking trump as part of his campaign for Governor of Virginia:
I really hate to see what Glenn Youngkin is trying to do to Virginia what Donald Trump did with our country. I really hate to see the division, the hatred we’re putting these children in this horrible position. Let’s just be clear - we don’t teach critical race theory. This is just a made up, this is a Trump, Betsy DeVos, Glenn Younkin Plan to divide people.
Post-election, you still saw pieces like this from MSNBC:
Ultimately, his campaign settled on a game plan that seemed to resonate deeply with white voters in Virginia: targeting school lesson plans that address inequality and social justice. Youngkin adopted the conservative strategy of falsely grouping these lesson plans under the label of “critical race theory,” and he promised to ban such teachings “on day one” if elected. Critical race theory is a college-level field of study that’s not taught in Virginia K-12 schools, but it’s become a catchall phrase for intellectually lazy people — many of them white — who want to stigmatize any discussion about American racism.
Overall the messaging was pretty clear - this isn’t CRT, since CRT is only a college thing; thus, there’s nothing going on at all. Anybody who thought different was either being fully tricked (if you believe McAuliffe) or a dumb racist (from MSNBC’s point of view). This was a slightly different kind of word-control from the examples before; here, they claimed a label didn’t apply to something people were worried about, and thus that the thing they were worried about didn’t exist at all.
I have to say I thought this had a good chance of working; in that, I think the evidence shows I was joined by McAuliffe, MSNBC, et al. But it didn’t; as you know by now Virginia went very, very poorly for Democrats. The tactic didn’t work; parents went on being very worried about what was taught to their children.
Again, I’m not actually here to interrogate who was right on CRT in this case. I’m looking at a tactic that you’d normally expect to work just fine, the kind of playing fast-and-loose with the definition of words that traditionally has let them destroy people with minimal effort. And it not only didn’t work, they lost big in a place they should have won.
And that’s not the only thing that’s cracking. When was the last time you saw an accusation of “racist” carry any weight outside of, say, a company as large and explicitly (forgive me) woke-friendly as Disney. The phrase “actual racist” is in heavy play among normal people as something to disambiguate between the new definition of the word as opposed to someone who might actually hurt someone, treat someone badly or even think less of someone based on their race. People are fairly heavily resisting the shift from demands that people use the words man and woman for trans men and trans women as opposed to actually treating them as exactly equivalent in all cases. White Supremacy is completely broken as a term at this point; it’s so bad it’s impossible to know what someone is even accusing someone of when it’s used unless you read the surrounding context (which is still no guarantee).
It’s also worth noting again that Republicans are traditionally pretty bad at using the same tactics; they just aren’t very good at redefining terms and getting new meanings for terms into circulation. But that wasn’t true here - for better or worse they’ve been able to take CRT and turn it from it’s original usage into something useful for them. Whether or not that describes something real to people (the voters thought it did), that’s abnormal for them; it’s something they wouldn’t normally be successful at. So what changed?
People build up callouses when exposed to repeated stimulus. I’m obviously someone who leans to the right, and I can speak from experience saying that hearing someone on Twitter call someone a racist or a bigot doesn’t have any effect on me anymore. I think that’s broadly true for most people on the right; having accusations aimed at their cultural tribe is just something we broadly tune out at this point, at least until we can get the full facts.
The right got used to this trick sooner than anyone else, by virtue of being the people who took the brunt of the cultural damage from it’s use, but it makes sense that eventually that desensitization would spread out from the usual targets to people who were merely hearing the accusations and seeing them used. People if nothing else get bored with stuff like this, and get to where another person being called a white supremacist (or whatever) stops having the excitement necessary to hold their interest.
That’s especially true if they have anything - anything at all - that helps to discourage them from resisting these word-games. In the case, you had parents who were legitimately worried that school had shifted even further to being a place where the state’s kids were brought up to state viewpoint standards as opposed to being a place that taught their kids things they actually wanted them to learn, and it failed. But it’s easy to imagine it working; the people using the tactic of going “no, see, this exact word doesn’t apply here so there’s no problems at all. Unless you are, perhaps, a racist?” is something that the left at least thought would work. I think it’s at least plausible something changed here.
In the case that I’m right, it’s hard to overstate how big of a deal this is. The left controls the widely available national dialogue; they have the sympathy and help (or at least fear and subsequent deference) of nearly every large news source and virtually every social media company. A big part of how they’ve grown that control and maintain it in the last few decades is using their better-than-the-right control language as an enforcement tool.
If their ability to convince people that reality has changed just because words have is lessened, that’s something we’d expect to have a huge impact on their ability to do business. It’s something I’ll be watching; the writing isn’t exactly on the wall, but I think the cracks are starting to show.
I wonder if the phenomenon of "mission creep" is related to the "definitional creep" you're highlighting here. A classic example of "mission creep" would be the March of Dimes continuing to exist after fulfilling its purpose of eradicating polio in children.
My line of thinking would be something like: Organization Anti-Xism exists to combat Xism. The level of overt Xism in society that the Organization can identify and defeat decreases to a point where the there isn't enough overt Xism around to keep all of the members of the Organization busy. Instead of scaling down its operation, the Organization has to change its target while maintaining (at least definitionally) its old mission. To save face, the new mission has to be called the same thing as the old mission even though it has expanded or completely changed course. It would be lame if they changed the mission statement from "eradicate Xism" to "eradicate way less dangerous and consequential instances of kinda-maybe Xism." Maybe the same thing happens on a smaller scale with activists whose mission becomes less necessary and who don't want to take the time and effort to identify and master a new field of activism.
(I get that the March of Dimes is not perfectly analogous, since its mission formally changed from eradicating childhood polio to promoting women's and young children's health in general. But I think it's the same species of thing.)
Perhaps this phenomenon would be akin to the phenomenon described in the classic Oscar Wilde-attributed quote, "“The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.” Perhaps the activism is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding activist class.
This could also be causally related to elite overproduction.
Google hits per term:
"actual racist" - 470k
"real racist" - 237k
"racist racist" - 206k
Newspeak here we come.