The more I engage with those who don’t share my views, the more I realize how seldom we actually communicate. We’re much better at talking at one another than we are at talking to one another. Even with the best of intentions, I’ve noticed what’s being said is all too often misunderstood or misinterpreted. I think this happens, in large part, because we assume the words we use will be heard and understood with the same intent and meaning with which they are expressed. This is a mistake.
Language is a blunt tool for expressing complex thoughts and ideas. Keep that in mind the next time you venture to talk religion or politics over Thanksgiving dinner.
Words matter, but the way we define them and use them matters just as much, if not more so. This is especially true when we use words that have become so politically charged their mere utterance provokes a visceral, emotional reaction. If we continue to ignore the fact that language is nuanced and words often mean different things to different people — especially those “across the aisle” — we have no hope of ever understanding one another.
Before I dig in, a quick story:
A dear friend of mine, a photographer I’ve been working with for years (he’s one of the best), is basically a communist. I am grateful he does not have too many communist friends or we might have problems. But I digress… I once asked this friend to review a speech I’d written, to help me understand how those words would be understood by people “like him” (I’m always focused on my large communist following). He read it — the speech I gave at Restoring Love, which I thought was pretty good — and all he said was, “You never said the word ‘love.’”
“The whole speech is about love,” I said.
“But you don’t use the word ‘love.’ You need to,” he replied.
He was right…
I have to get better at defining the language I use and hearing the point someone else is making, despite using terms that I may inherently and unknowingly define differently.
So, as I start to engage on Medium, I think it could be helpful to define some of the terms I often use to describe the ideological spectrum of American politics. These are words we all use, but I’m guessing we don’t fully comprehend what they mean to one another. To be clear, I don’t think of myself as some kind of authority — Noah Webster I am not… But in hopes of having a productive conversation, I thought I’d explain the way I use and define them.
Anyone who watches, reads or listens to what I say will be familiar with my take. But Medium is an entirely new community for me. I’m guessing we don’t know each other very well, which is one of the main reasons I decided to create an account — to reach out to and engage those who would probably never seek me out on their own.
A ‘liberal’ — what does the word mean?
To me, a liberal, is a person who is primarily motivated by a concern for the rights of certain vulnerable groups, and looks to government action — typically federal, but also state — to liberate or defend those groups against oppression by society’s rich and powerful. A liberal is also concerned with fairness and believes society should strive to achieve equality for all in opportunity, if not circumstance. A liberal believes it is the government’s duty to defend our civil rights and individual liberties and to safeguard its citizens from societal ills like poverty and discrimination.
When described as such, it is easy to have a positive response. As someone who identifies as a constitutional conservative and libertarian, I cringe at the government’s accumulation of power and authority and believe, at the end of the day, “We the People” have a greater likelihood of achieving this form of liberalism than through a bloated bureaucracy. But setting aside my views on “how” it should be achieved, it’s hard to argue with the goals.
Of course it’s important for society to combat societal ills, safeguard liberties, protect individual rights and strive to create equal opportunities for all. I realize some people think I’m a monster, but come on — who can be against this?
Limiting the definition of liberal to the bolded print above shows just how much common ground we have to stand on. We all have the same goal: Progress. We just have radically different ways of getting there.
What is a constitutional conservative?
A constitutional conservative (CC) views the U.S. Constitution as an inspired document. The CC believes the Constitution appropriately defines the role of government and the scope of its power — limited (especially federal).
The CC is motivated by a concern for individual rights and liberties and a disdain for oppression — especially oppression at the hands of government. This puts the CCs at odds with their liberal neighbors, who often see government power not as something to fear, but rather as a helpful tool to affect societal change. The CC is also concerned with fairness. Yes, society should strive to create an equal playing field. You should reap what you sow. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Obviously, there are divergences between liberals and CC. That’s okay. I can be neighbors, friends, colleagues — you name it — with a liberal. And for those who know me personally and not the caricature I’ve been turned into, they know they could be the same to me, too.
A liberal and a conservative who strive for the same end but simply disagree on the means can eventually find shared causes and goals to achieve common ground.
But there is a different word that mucks it all up…
Recently — and I mean very recently (not the Woodrow Wilson era) — liberals, seeing a need to update their choice of words, began adding the word “progressive” to their vocabulary. Progressivism used to be defined as a more aggressive form of liberalism — in essence, Marxism. Liberals made a conscious effort to rebrand themselves as progressives for the express purpose of marketing. (Which, by the way, was very smart. We on the right need to figure out new words that carry less baggage as well.)
The word liberal, to me, does not mean anything anymore — and frankly, neither does conservatism. (At times, I describe myself as an adherent to classical liberalism as defined and lived by people like John Locke and Adam Smith.)
This is where progressivism comes in. I do not believe liberals have cornered the market on progressivism.
In a speech I gave at the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), I felt compelled to call out the progressives in the GOP. My speech went over so well they refused to invite me back again until this past year — and that only happened after a change in leadership. I did not make many friends that day in 2010.
Progressivism has power in both parties and both ideologies.
A progressive Republican is basically the same as a progressive liberal (defined above). But instead of relying on government to accomplish liberal ideals, it uses government power to impose conservative principles.
When a progressive Republican — say Utah Senator Todd Weiler — tries to mandate the installation of porn blockers on all mobile phones in his state, this is progressivism.
When a progressive liberal — say President Obama — pressures schools to give transgender students access to whatever bathroom they please, this is progressivism, too.
Please note, I am not arguing whether porn blocker use or transgender bathroom choice is good or bad — we will disagree on one of these or possibly both. Rather, I’m arguing that when government is used as a top-down force by either party, the result will be a divided populace.
You and I, you and your friend, you and your mother-in-law can disagree and still love one another. But when the government forces what it wants upon us, it results in only one thing: A fractured citizenry, where the side that does not support the government’s use of power is labeled hateful, evil, stupid, etc.
Progressivism, regardless of the party, is when government enforces its ideology on the American people. [Tweet this]
You may argue that the ends justify the means — but I advocate caution here. If the ends justify the means, when the other party is in power, the pendulum will swing and you will be just as pissed as the other party was previously. And pendulums don’t slow down when they are being abused. They swing harder and farther.
I feel it happening, do you?
My point is not to condemn either party or ideology per se. My point is to first define our words to ensure when we speak, we understand each others’ definitions. We can disagree on the definitions, but at least we will know we are debating the definitions and not the principles.
But more than that — we, as an America divided, have a chance at living together in (relative) peace and harmony if we remove the progressive aspects of our ideology. If we are aware of government-imposed power — which changes based on which party holds each branch of government — and focus on living our own lives without trying to impose our ideology on others, we can once again become a united country.
I am not describing utopia. We will never be a country without differences, but we can be a country that we feel — for the most part — is one people.
One day, it is my dream we will become who we were meant to be — a dysfunctional family that loves one another and accepts one another for who each of us are, as individuals.