The Media’s Misuse of Language Always Has a Political Purpose

December 24, 2020 Updated: December 29, 2020

Commentary

Recently in this space I wrote about the common misuse of the word “scandal” (see “Look to the Media for Greatest Scandal of Our Lifetime”). Too often people use the word to mean not something that is a scandal but something they think ought to be a scandal.

The whole point about the “scandals” of Hunter Biden before the election or Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) after the election is that they weren’t scandals—though they should have been. As oxygen is necessary for fire, so is publicity necessary for scandal, and both these scandals have been practically snuffed out, as scandals, by the media’s denying them the oxygen of publicity.

But this use, or misuse, of words is a much more general phenomenon than most people realize. In the media, it’s virtually epidemic. Routinely, things are stated as facts—for instance, that President Donald Trump “lies” about election fraud—that can’t possibly be known as facts. They are only things the speaker or writer believes or wishes to be facts.

That example is easy to see, at least for anyone living outside the media’s wish-fulfillment bubble. It’s a bit harder to spot a bit of rhetorical trickery that seems to have been pioneered by the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

That slogan, when you think about it, consists of a relative term masquerading as an absolute one. To say that something—anything—“matters” is to imply an indirect object: To whom does it matter? Black lives may matter to me or to you, though I doubt even that the slogan means, as it appears to, that it is only the blackness of the black lives that matters.

Does the life of Clarence Thomas matter to the sloganeers equally with that of George Floyd or Michael Brown? How about that of David Dorn, the retired black police chief murdered by BLM rioters in St. Louis in June? His life didn’t matter to them.

In any case, it is utterly meaningless to say that black lives matter absolutely unless you mean that they matter to God. And that’s meaningless, too, since all lives must matter to God, ex hypothesi. “There is a special Providence in the fall of a sparrow,” says Hamlet, paraphrasing the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:29. The sparrow’s color isn’t mentioned, either by our savior or by the prince of Denmark.

But the usefulness of the Black Lives Matter slogan for raising money from virtue-signaling rich people or for turning out demonstrators to intimidate police or politicians from the disfavored political party is apparently unaffected by the fact that it is, literally, nonsense.

Of course, I might well want to conclude that it’s not nonsense if I know I can be beaten up for saying it is.

Lately we have seen the word “offensive” used in the same way, as in this headline from the Dec. 21 New York Times: “It’s 2020. Indigenous Team Names in Sports Have to Go: The Chiefs, Braves, Blackhawks and Seminoles need to follow the Cleveland baseball team in dropping their offensive names.”

As with “Black Lives Matter,” the word “offensive” here is used absolutely, as if the names were somehow offensive to the cosmos rather than to anybody in particular.

Once again we must ask, “Offensive to whom?”

When it began, this agitation about “indigenous team names”—also a nonsensical shortcut for “names supposedly taken from indigenous peoples”—assumed that they were offensive to the indigenous people, better known as Indians or Native Americans. But numerous polls have found that only tiny fractions of such people, far short of a majority, are actually offended by the names.

So now we’re invited to assume that they are just intrinsically offensive—because the writer, (Kurt Streeter in this case), taking it on himself to speak for the absolute, thinks they are.

In the wake of the election, an even more sinister usage of this kind seems to have taken hold at The New York Times editorial board. “Accountability After Trump” read the Dec. 20 editorial headline. “How can America rebuild democracy’s guardrails and hold the past administration to account for its lawlessness?”

It shouldn’t be necessary to explain to people who advertise themselves as “a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values” that in that “democracy” whose “guardrails” they seek to rebuild, politicians are accountable to the voters, not to the NY Times editorial board, nor yet to their political enemies making partisan claims of “lawlessness” against them.

Particularly when it was precisely such people as these whom Trump was running against when he was elected in 2016.

But over the past four years, the NY Times has grown so used to making absolute statements of this kind, statements made as if ex cathedra from their self-appointed secular papacy and therefore infallibly, that they presumably don’t even know they’re doing it anymore.

Taking on themselves the role of ultimate and absolute judges of the political proprieties is by now second nature to them. “Accountable to them” means “accountable,” period.

It’s really the Trump voters, then, who are being held accountable to the NY Times—which could explain why the paper’s writers and editors have spent the past four years expressing their disappointment in the wrong choice, as they suppose, made by those voters in 2016. It could also explain why they keep insisting that those voters couldn’t possibly have made the same choice in 2020.

“Democracy,” therefore, as in “democracy’s guardrails,” is another word routinely misused by the NY Times. For voters can have no free choice if they can be held accountable to the NY Times or anybody else for choosing wrong.

So far as the NY Times is concerned, either voters must accept the advice and guidance afforded them by the “expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values” of the tiny oligarchy headquartered at 620 Eighth Avenue in New York—or they must be corrected.

James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The author of “Honor: A History,” he is a movie critic for The American Spectator and the media critic for the New Criterion.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.