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Thomas Knapp: Think Words Aren’t Magic? Think Again

“Word choices by politicians and activists matter,” writes Matt Yglesias. “[S]wing voters tend to self-identify as moderate, and as a result, people who want to win should try to portray their ideas as moderate, common-sense reforms rather than sweeping vehicles for change. At the same time, words are not magic.”

I disagree, but context matters. Yglesias is discussing whether terms like “Medicare for All” and “pro-choice” can do the heavy lifting for candidates and activists if the policies they’re used to promote aren’t as sound  as the slogans are catchy. He’s correct as far as he goes. “Free ice cream” sounds great, but if it comes with a “minimum $10 tip” disclaimer in the fine print, it probably won’t get quite so many takers.

But words ARE magic. Well-chosen words — especially words that poke at our existing inclinations or fears — can move the individuals hearing or reading them that first and most important step down one path or another, after which the path is like as not to become a set of rails that tend to keep one moving down the same track.

As Mark Twain noted more than a century ago, “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

There’s a reason why the two major sides of the abortion debate call themselves “pro-choice” and “pro-life” (who could be against either “choice” or “life?”), but come up with less flattering names for their counterparts. The devil is in the details, and once you’re committed the details tend to matter less.

Put to their worst use, words become “black” rather than “white” magic.

See what I did there? Those terms don’t seem to have arisen from racial stereotypes, but to, say a late 19th-century “white” American the term “black magic” would have evoked Haitian Vodou and other African or African-adjacent practices. That’s the lightning. “Low magic” or “left-hand path” are just lightning-bugs.

One current (and related) example of “black magic” verbiage is “Replacement Theory” — the claim that suspect elites are behind a plot to replace “white” Americans with voters of darker skin hue for nefarious political purposes.

In reality, “Replacement Theory” isn’t actually about “replacement.” It’s about people moving from one place to another, members of various groups inter-marrying, things changing as they always have and always will.

But with the word “replacement,” its advocates bottle some big-time lightning by triggering a basic insecurity. Who considers being “replaced” a positive thing? Those who buy the initial premise are stepping onto the path marked “Now Boarding: Crazy Train.”

Words ARE magic — powerful magic. Be careful how you listen to them and use them.


Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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