Reclaiming the Language of Values

Reclaiming the Language of Values May 21, 2012

Members of the Ethical Culture Society of Boston had an interesting discussion Sunday morning regarding the language of values, lamenting the fact that progressives seem to have ceded the language of value and morality to conservatives. I think this is an astute observation: the word “values” has a right-wing tinge in America, and once you start pairing it with other words, it becomes more than a tinge – family values, anyone?

If progressives are going to gain traction in American politics again, we need to start to reclaim and reshape the language of values, reclaiming words the right has colonized, and rehabilitating those the right has besmirched.  If we are particularly smart, we will be able to use some of the right’s favorite terms to promote the progressive agenda, performing a sort of linguistic ninjutsu which can be extremely powerful. That means speaking loudly and unapologetically in the language of morality and values in a consistent and intelligent way. But which words and phrases might we seek to use? Here are three suggestions to get the discussion started:

  • Liberal. It’s key that progressives loudly and proudly declare themselves to be liberals, and ask anyone who has a problem with that why they are against liberty. This may be one of the easiest linguistic shifts to manage, and with a high potential payoff, because the synonyms of liberal and related terms are already so positively viewed (just think “liberty”). “Are you not a liberal, Mr. Romney? What, you don’t value freedom? Perhaps you’d prefer a Statue of Slavery looking over New York harbor?”
  • Duty. Humanist philosopher-activist Felix Adler loved the word “duty” – he called the Ethical Culture movement he founded a “religion of duty”. The term has a bit of an outdated air to it, and perhaps sounds more like a word of the right (duty to an authority figure, to a hierarchy) – and therein lies the power. If we can start talking about the duties we have to other people then we might activate some of the moral emotions of those of a more conservative cast, while directing those moral emotions toward progressive causes like welfare. To say “We should care for the poor because it’s only fair that we should do something for those who can’t help themselves” sounds quite different from “we have a moral duty to the poor which we must never be forgotten”. “Responsibility” is a similar word which we should also reclaim.
  • Patriotism. Progressives are often wary of patriotism because of its closeness to nationalism. Quite right too – nationalism is something to strenuously avoid. But a healthy pride in the achievements and highest principles of a nation is nothing to be afraid of and, in any case, the word “patriot” simply holds too much power to allow it to be colonized by our ideological opponents. So we must take it back, but in ways which stress the best things about American history: I’ve written at length here about how we can portray secularism as a patriotic value, and we might seek to do the same with reason. Many of America’s greatest contributions to the world are the fruits of reason, and that is worthy of celebration: “America is a land of innovation, of discovery, of reason. American ingenuity gave rise to the internet; American creatives invented the iPod and the iPhone; Americans put a man of the moon! Our nation is a nation of thinkers and dreamers, a nation which loves to figure things out. I can’t think of anything more American than the love of reason.”

The real fun begins once you start combining the newly-reclaimed language:

“As a proud liberal, I believe it is my patriotic duty – and the duty of all Americans – to make a contribution to the continued greatness of this nation. Liberals understand that our liberties need constant protection and support – freedom isn’t free – and therefore it is our responsibility to pay as much in tax as we can afford to ensure America’s stars continue to rise.”

You can sound like Karl Rove channeling FDR!

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