What's in a word? Well, by dint of existence, generally something. Rarely little; more often much. Especially if that word is a label. And if that label is applied by a conservative, it's likely being employed as a verbal bludgeon that distorts the truth for political gain.
After the communist paranoia spawned by McCarthyism, the next big word joust in North America occurred during the abortion debate of the sixties and seventies — an otherwise important public discussion. Women had sought to terminate unwanted pregnancies for millennia and always would; the question was whether this should be carried out legally and, ergo, safely, or whether women would continue to be forced, by the criminalization and unnecessary stigmatization of abortion, to seek unsafe procedures.
The anti-abortion faction — largely Christian conservatives — sought to control all moral ground by self-labeling as "pro-life," positively spinning their own agenda while implicitly painting the other's as "anti-life." Neither, however, was a factually valid description. Those favouring access to abortion — community-minded progressives also big on gender equality, social democracy, peace and environmentalism — clearly weren't anti-life, their position being based on non-hysterical health and rights arguments. In contrast, supposed pro-lifers were generally the same confused moralists who zealously supported gender inequality, capital punishment, and war. Still, the latter considered their argument valid because biological life begins at conception, ignoring arguments about the sentient nature of mere zygote or collection of cells. Fortunately progressives fought back, winning the label battle by focusing on the real issue: a woman's right to choose. As a statement of fact, "pro-choice" could not be argued. Nor could the contrary "anti-choice" (it never stuck given conservative distaste for accuracy). The lesson was that being labeled "anti" anything in the public arena put you on the defensive.
In today's culture of instant communication, the labelling stakes are at an all-time high, and thus ditto the use of wordplay by conservatives with indefensible agendas — like the fossil fuel industry.
"Like any other tool, language can be abused, used not to build but to destroy, not to communicate but to confuse, not to clarify but to obscure, not to lead but to mislead," says American linguist Dr. William Lutz, in explaining how doublespeak — words that deliberately mislead the public and hide the truth — is based on nuances between what is said and left unsaid, obscuring language and communication.
For instance, conservatives and resource-extraction types use the decidedly humanist term "environmentalist" exclusively as a pejorative, attempting to conjure only the far ends of a broad spectrum — soft-headed tree-huggers and radical, property-destroying activists — while ignoring the vast, responsible, dialogue-minded middle. Progressives have yet to seriously counter this misuse because they like the term, seeing themselves as environmentalists sensu lato — believing in the primacy of a healthy environment (i.e., life-supporting versus life-threatening) as a basis for a healthy population, a healthy society and a healthy economy. They furthermore see any kind of doublespeak for the unhealthy process that it is. Were they to buy in, however, an equivalent would be to studiously employ "businessperson" as a euphemism that described only bronze-age barterers or profit-at-all-costers who obtain money by fraudulent or destructive means. But of course that would be silly, wouldn't it?
And yet, despite its clear absurdity, the Con Game continues. In recent messaging around what should otherwise be sane, rational, and necessary national discussions on a range of issues, the "Harper government" (the term itself a repugnant misrepresentation) has sought to forcefully label legitimate questions by both opposition MPs and citizens as being variously "anti-job," "anti-business," "anti-family," "pro-pedophile," and "pro-terrorist." Such terms, like a playground bully's taunting, are by any measure fatuously misleading, puerile prevarication, outright slander, or all three. HarperCons further support willful truth-bending by organizations like the criminally laughable tar-sands cabal, Ethical Oil, lining-up behind industry ads that deceive in both substance (recall Enbridge's infamous Northern Gateway "Path to Prosperity" ad) and by casting spurious opinion as fact, attempting to greenwash that which can't logically be greenwashed. Such flagrant dishonesty is made to seem true by repetition and widespread dissemination, and that requires serious money — like the $120 million conservative billionaires doled out from 2002 - 2010 to cast doubt on climate-change science (sadly, it worked).
Faced with the conservatives' aggression and cultivation of institutionalized ignorance, progressives must push back, as in the abortion-debate days, with truth-based labels: I suggest "sustainable economists," for themselves (green isn't working); "history deniers" for creationists; "science deniers" for climate foes; "democracy manipulators" for those who would use this institution for unscrupulous and malevolent outcomes; and, for the resource extraction industry, any of "carbon-focused," "anti-sustainability," "pro-exploitationary," "radical extractionists" and, frankly, "goddamn liars."
The rise of doublespeak in Canadian politics isn't lost on the press, who repeatedly liken the disingenuous conservative narrative to the nascent fascism of Orwell's dystopian future in 1984: in Canada, they note, conservative wordplay now defines lies as truth. And that can't be good for anyone.