How conservatives use 'verbal jiu-jitsu' to turn liberals' tongues against them | CNN Politics (2023)


Two favorites for the White House in 2024are boundin a hypothetical rematch. Congress is paralyzed. Every major election seems to be decided like a razor.

In any case, the battle for political supremacy in the US between Republicans and Democrats appears to be at an impasse. Sometimes the two sides resemble a pair of drunken boxers battling each other in a match that neither of them can finish.

But there is one political arena where the Republicans triumph almost every time — and control of this arena could determine who wins the White House in 2024.

Republicans are masters of verbal jiu-jitsu. It is a form of language warfare in which the practitioner takes a political phrase or concept popularized by their opponent and gradually turns it into an unusable insult. As the Japanese martial art known asjiu-jitsu,the devotees eschew counter-arguments and instead direct their opponents' momentum to defeat them.

If this sounds abstract, consider the evolution of "woke." The word is defined as "active awareness of social injustice". But it wasturned into a modern plague, the one to which the politician compared "virusmore dangerous than any pandemic, no doubt.”

Name almost every phrase the left has adopted in recent years — “critical race theory,” “diversity,” “global warming,” even the word “liberal” itself — and conservatives have redefined or denigrated them.

How conservatives use 'verbal jiu-jitsu' to turn liberals' tongues against them | CNN Politics (1)

'Wake up' is defined as 'being actively aware of social injustice'. But the Republicans turned it into a slander.

Meanwhile, Republicans continue to proudly use words and phrases like “family values,” “conservative,” and “patriot”—regardless of who or what is associated with those terms.

As candidates prepare for the first GOP presidential debate of 2024 in Milwaukee on Wednesday, it's a good time to ponder this question: Why are the Republicans so good at this form of verbal combat and the Democrats so bad?

Part of the answer comes down to commitment and discipline: Republicans are spending more time turning words into weapons and sticking to their message better, he says.Lindsey Cormack, a political scientist who focuses on race, gender, communication and politicsStevens Institute of Technologyin New Jersey.

“I studied their communications for 15 years and it kind of surprised me, because I think the Democrats are good at a lot of things, but they really dropped the ball a lot on communications,” says Cormack.

Cormack says the Conservatives have built a think tank ecosystem of linguists and focus groups to test words and phrases for a political battle.The Democrats are doing some of that, but not with the same level of commitment, she says.

"They (conservatives) think about what words resonate, what words evoke other kinds of thoughts, or what images pop into people's minds when they hear the messages," says Cormack. "They seem to be investing more in it, and there are more people writing about that kind of work and linguists doing that kind of thing for them."

How conservatives flipped the script on race

Verbal jiu-jitsu is nothing new in American politics. Conservatives have long used it on racial issues. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, conservatives in both the Democratic and Republican parties often used a series of verbal tricks to evade the moral arguments of their opponents.

They did not say they were against integration; they said they were for "state rights".

They didn't say they didn't want their kids sitting next to black or brown kids as they opposed public school desegregation; they said they were against "forced bus transportation".

How conservatives use 'verbal jiu-jitsu' to turn liberals' tongues against them | CNN Politics (2)

The Conservatives have not said directly that they are against school integration. They, like the New York parents pictured here, said they oppose "forced bus transportation."

They did not say they oppose civil rights leaders' efforts to make the US a true multiracial democracy; they called these leaders “communists” or “socialists.”

They flipped the script by offering new words to replace other terms that were difficult to attack directly.

Sometimes they disarmed the liberal phrase by transforming its meaning.

"Warrior for Social Justice",for example, it didn't start out as an insult. What's wrong with someone who fights for the poor and exploited? Then the term is reversedconservativesand internet culture into something else: a "nagging,"a smug progressive who can't take a joke.

Recent years have produced countless headlines about yet another liberal term dismantled by the right.

critical theory of raceonce an obscure academic discipline that emphasized that racism was more than individual prejudice; it is embedded in laws, policies and institutions. But the conservativesredirecteddiscussion and changed the term to a short phrase thatcriticizes almost everyoneexploring systemic racism or history that might make white people uncomfortable.

How conservatives use 'verbal jiu-jitsu' to turn liberals' tongues against them | CNN Politics (3)

Parents gather in Virginia to oppose critical race theory. Conservatives have turned this once-obscure academic study into a political hot spot.

Regardless of the method, this form of verbal jiu-jitsu serves a purpose, says Robin DiAngelo, author of "White Fragility," the popular book that spawned another popular liberal slogan.

"Its function is to silence the conversation and protect the status quo," says DiAngelo. “It doesn't have to make sense. It just has to work and take the race off the table and prevent challenges to the status quo.”

How 'diversity' and 'equality' have become dirty words

Next on the hit list are two other terms liberals favor: "diversity" and "fairness," says DiAngelo.

These words originally meant values ​​that were almost universally accepted. Not many people openly advocate exclusion or inequality.

In recent years, many institutions have launched diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) initiatives to make their workplace more equitable and diverse.

But Republican leaders are now equating the DEI initiatives with an 'awakening'"loyalty oaths.” They have introduced bills that cut DEI programspublic universitiesiBusiness America.

Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity and Higher Education Officers, recently told a reporter that she no longer uses the acronym DEI because "armed."

Republicans also tried to rewrite "fairness," meaning "to be fair or impartial," calling the word a "mandatory for discrimination." And they tried to delegitimize “diversity” by expanding the term to “diversity of the industrial complex", what aone critic described it as "a bureaucratic force that tramples every aspect of national life".

“As someone who has been in this industry for decades, I can tell you that there is no such thing as a complex of diversity industries,” says DiAngelo. “When an organization has a diversity program, it's often one person against the whole institution. And maybe they have a workforce of one or two people on a shoestring budget. But using that kind of language implies that it's kind of coming over people, like it's some kind of trick."

When “global warming” becomes “climate change.”

Some of the most skilled verbal jiu-jitsu practitioners are able to disarm their opponents without even knowing they've given up. As a result, liberals end up using terms favored by their conservative opponents.

The term "global warming"was popularizedby the media and some scientists in the 1980s. Verbal jiu-jitsu has virtually eliminated him from the public debate. Part of that change is due to science. Some scientists believe that climate change is a more accurate description of the environmental challenges facing the planet.

How conservatives use 'verbal jiu-jitsu' to turn liberals' tongues against them | CNN Politics (4)

Protesters march across the Brooklyn Bridge during a climate change protest in New York on March 3, 2023.

But it was the Republicans who didpushing initiallyto change the name, for reasons that had little to do with scientific rigor. Instead of acknowledging the science that points to impending environmental catastrophe, a Republican pollster used another phrase to sound the alarm: climate change.

The term was popularized in part by Frank Luntz, a Republican pollsteradvisedIn the early 2000s, GOP politicians stopped using the term "global warming" because it had "disastrous connotations," and reframed the problem as the more benign "climate change." (Luntz has sincedezavuiraohis attempts to question global warming.)

Two decades later,many liberal politicians and activists still use the phrase “climate change, cognitive scientist.”George Lakoffnoted.

"The word 'climate' sounds nice - like palm trees or something - and the word 'change', well, 'change' just happens," Lakoff said ininterview. "It's not a big deal. You can't help it. It's not man-made. So the term itself is a right-wing position that people on the left have just assumed innocently instead of saying, well, this is it ."climate catastropheit is coming closer."

One well-known liberal hit back at verbal jiu-jitsu

Lakoff, authority on political language and author"Don't think about the elephant: know your values ​​and frame the discussion"says Republicans continue to beat Democrats on the linguistic battlefield because they make a false assumption about human nature.

“They assume that all you have to do is tell people the facts and they will come to the correct conclusion,” you saidanother interview. "This is absolutely ridiculous. The thought is mostly metaphorical. Frames trump all facts."

Let's take the word liberal, that iscertainas someone who is “open-minded”, “tolerant”, someone who believes in “personal freedom” and that society needs to change “so that money, property and power are distributed more equitably”.

By the 1960s, conservatives had successfully twisted the connotations of liberalism into what was one commentator.describedas "an ideology of bureaucracy-loving, libertarian, burdensome, and generosity that promotes suffrage."

How conservatives use 'verbal jiu-jitsu' to turn liberals' tongues against them | CNN Politics (5)

As a presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy rejected attempts to smear him with the term "liberal" with a clever defense that disarmed his political opponents.

But a famous Democrat knew better. He gave a masterclass in defeating attempts to smear him with the word "liberal."

John F. Kennedy was confronted with this perception when he ran for president in 1960, during a speech in a New York hotel. Instead of avoiding the label, Kennedyproudly embracedUnpleasant.

"If by 'liberal' they mean someone who looks forward and not back, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions," he said, "someone who cares about people's well-being — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties...if that's what they mean by 'liberals' then I can proudly say I am a liberal.”

Kennedy may have been an example of linguistic talent, many leftists still chose to call themselves "progressive" in the decades after conservatives continued to denigrate the term.

However, the phrase creates onecoming back.Kennedy's lesson continues.

A verbal altercation could help decide the 2024 race

Arguments about the meaning of words and phrases may seem trivial given the political battle at stake. But the 2024 presidential election and the upcoming battles of former President Trump will not only be fought in voting booths or in the courts - they will also be fought on a verbal battlefield.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, think about some major recent political battles over the meaning of words and phrases.

Was what happened in the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 an “uprising”? Or it was what some GOP leaders called "legitimate political discourse”?

Did former President Trump practice"freedom of speechwhen he questioned the result of the 2020 presidential election? Or tried"to cheat"sad?

And will words like “diversity” and “inclusion” turn into another version of “woke” — terms so tainted by relentless attacks that even their proponents are reluctant to use them?

Some form of verbal jiu-jitsu can determine the answers to these questions. He has shaped the history of the country more than many people realize.

John Blake is the author"More Than I Imagined: What One Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew."


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