Language is a weapon in political warfare — if the media play along

Language is a weapon in political warfare — if the media play along
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Language — or, more narrowly, words themselves — is the most potent weapon in political warfare. What you call something can powerfully influence how people perceive or think about it. If you’re tuned into how the phenomenon works, you see it happening clearly. 

The Democrats have had a sophisticated and visible language strategy since President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE was elected. Examples that stand out this year include their efforts to characterize what’s happening on our southern border as a “manufactured crisis.” Soon, news anchors and reporters were spouting “manufactured crisis” over and over. 

This was a centrally run effort — as was recent coverage of the Republicans who tried to enter the closed-door committee hearing regarding impeachment. Multiple reporters described the congressmen as “white” males. 

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Other examples are more insidious, indicating a mindset or ideological framework that creeps into stories that try to be even-handed. For example, the New York Times wrote about a growing movement demanding old-fashioned dishwashers become available again. Why? Because they actually worked and performed their desired function, to wash dishes. Those pining for older washers identify the culprit squarely as over-regulation. In the middle of a fair story, the writer notes that the Trump administration is pursuing “weakening energy standards for lightbulbs,” unaware that another point of view — the same point of view reflected by those demanding dishwashers that wash — would describe these as “streamlining” or perhaps “rationalizing” standards, or “weighing the costs versus benefits.” 

At the same time, an interesting vocabulary battle is going on around gun issues — but this time the media are undecided about the script, or apparently unwilling to play along. The competition is between describing the desired action to promote gun safety by removing guns as a “mandatory buyback” or “confiscation.”

These are very different concepts. Gun opponents have been pushing “buybacks” for years. Churches (bless their hearts, as we say in Texas) have been sponsoring buybacks for years. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that people voluntarily selling their guns to a religious third party are unlikely to be mass shooters or even single-shot shooters. 

The definition of a “buyback” is “the buying back of goods by the original seller,” fudging the idea of who was the original seller and popularized by corporate entities purchasing back their own shares or stock to reduce the number of shares outstanding — which a stock buyback would do, but a gun “buyback” would not. 

The phrase “mandatory buyback” hopes the public focuses on “buyback,” which connotes a transaction between two willing parties. The addition of the concept of “mandatory” panders to the segment of the populace that loathes the concept of individuals owning firearms. 

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“Mandatory buyback” is competing with the word and concept “confiscate,” which is defined as “taking a possession away from someone when you have the right to do so,” frequently as “a punishment.” Some definitions include the concept of “taking or seizing (someone’s property) with authority.” This concept recognizes that “property” belongs to someone, and the confiscator asserts the “right” and the “authority” to seize it with or without consent. This is no less than a frontal assault on the concept of private property and the rule of law. 

Anyone who wonders what happens when the concept of private property is breached should take a look at Venezuela. It’s a shame that the study of American colonial history has fallen out of fashion because one of the issues that energized the colonists was the issue of respect for private property. 

Joined with this is the concept of “authority.” The American experiment was based on authority and freedom resting with the individual, as opposed to the state. What makes this such an interesting debate is that Democrats have not coalesced around whether to argue for a “buyback” or “confiscation,” and the media are visibly confused. 

To illustrate this, consider two articles from the Dallas Morning News. On Sept. 20, an article headlined “Beto O’Rourke’s demand for gun confiscation sparks feuds with Trump — and fellow Democrat Schumer” began by examining the call to “confiscate assault-style” weapons. By the fourth paragraph, the writer describes this as a “controversial gun buyback.” Six paragraphs later, it’s back to “a push for confiscation.” The article yo-yos back and forth for the following 14 paragraphs, which describe trying to “confiscate” weapons and support for “mandatory buybacks.” 

Nine days later, the confusion was demonstrated in another headline: “Could Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeO'Rourke says he 'absolutely' plans to stay in politics Krystal Ball: Buttigieg is 'the boomer candidate' Language is a weapon in political warfare — if the media play along MORE really take your guns? If government attempts a buyback, here's how it would work.” The first paragraph notes that some Democrats have amped up demand for banning and/or confiscating certain weapons. The first question in the Q&A format asks, “How many weapons would be confiscated?” The next question is: “Have other countries confiscated guns?” And the first sentence in the answer begins: “Australia implemented a mandatory buyback… .”

Wise advice comes from Matt Bennett, a liberal activist, co-founder of Third Way and a board member of several groups pushing for stringent regulation of gun ownership. When candidates such as O’Rourke push for a “mandatory buyback,” Bennett notes in a USA Today opinion piece, “If it’s mandatory that a gun is turned over to the government, that’s confiscation.” 

We should describe the language debate as a distraction and diversion from the real issues — for example, how to keep firearms in general, not just automatic weapons, out of the hands of people who are mentally deranged or who plan to use them for criminal purposes. The inescapable conclusion from years of evidence looking at the confiscation or relinquishment of so-called “assault-style weapons” is that the strategy doesn’t really work.

Merrie Spaeth, a Dallas communications consultant, was President Reagan’s director of media relations. Follow her on Twitter @SpaethCom.