There are a few words that some people use in our political discourse that I have come to hate. I’m not exactly sure why, it is more of a visceral, emotional thing than logic. Let me try to explain each case in turn.
Proactive. People often say, “you have to be proactive,” meaning that you have to take action now to prevent problems in the future. What’s the issue? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, people say this in the context of a problem that already exists. It is very rare for anyone in government to even be able to think of a problem that doesn’t exist yet. What we should say is simply: “you have to get going,” or, “you have to be animated about this,” or simply, “do something.”
Unsustainable. People often say that something is “unsustainable,” as in, “the healthcare system is unsustainable,” or, “relying on fossil fuels is unsustainable,” or, “rising college tuition is unsustainable.” What’s the issue? It really depends on your time horizon. In the very long run, nothing is sustainable—one day all human life on Earth will end. And in fact, the problem is not that a given activity is unsustainable, but that we cannot do all of our activities over the long run at the same time, that the individual cost curves for each activity cannot all exist in the same space forever. What we should say is simply: “it costs too much,” or, “it is getting too expensive,” or, “we’re going to run out of that.” But we shouldn’t say that something is “unsustainable” because that is often not true—it might well be sustainable if we gave it priority over all other things.
Dog-whistle. Liberal pundits coined this phrase to describe the code words used by Republicans that point to brown people, even though they seem superficially color blind. For example, “inner city” might be seen as a code word for “poor black people.” What’s the issue? A dog-whistle is one that can be heard by dogs, but not humans. The problem is that we can all hear these racial implications. Who is the “dog” that can’t hear them? What we should say is simply: “code words” or, “words with racial implications.” And by the way, it is the doctrine of political correctness that forces people to hide their true feelings that produces these “code words.”
Micro-aggression. Liberal academics coined this phrase to criminalize words that the super-sensitive might find offensive or insulting. In law we call these folks “eggshell plaintiffs.” In a way, this development is evidence of the success we have had in solving some of our social problems. Having mostly solved our bigger problems, we are now manufacturing issues to argue about regardless of how minor they are. What’s the issue? A society that trains young people to freak out when someone says something that upsets them because they disagree is a society that will die quickly when it goes up against a truly aggressive enemy. It is a society training everyone to be a victim, a baby, and a colossal wimp. Aggressive behavior is sometimes necessary and strong words can sometimes make for a good debate.
Fact-free world. Both sides of the partisan debate have taken to accusing each other of living in a “fact-free world,” although my memory is that it started on the Left in regards to global warming. The truth is that there are always going to be some people who want to believe certain things even in the face of contrary evidence. What’s the issue? There is often a very subjective value judgment at work about what the evidence shows, and cherry picking of facts by the speaker is common. We should simply say, “I disagree,” or, “That’s not true,” or, “That is false.” If we mean to accuse someone of being delusional or being in denial, then we should say that. The term “fact-free world” suggests that someone doesn’t understand science, but what constitutes true science is debated within the scientific community.
Adult conversation. We often hear snobs say that, “we need to have an adult conversation,” implying that their adversaries are childish. What’s the issue? Adults routinely make childish statements to each other, particularly when they are married. People don’t “grow up” as much as some believe. It is not going to be easy to have a decent conversation when you start out with an ad hominem attack on the person you are talking to. It is just bad politics that gets in the way of productive discourse. The other problem is that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the conversation is already underway. We should simply say, “We need to be more honest,” or, “we need to tell the truth.”
Nuanced argument. We often hear snobs claim that they are making a, “nuanced argument,” implying that only the truly intellectual can understand the subtle differences and shades of grey that are involved. What the issue? What some people call “nuance” often just reflects confusion on the part of the speaker and is a defense mechanism that accuses the listener of simply being unable to understand (when they do). Anyway, typically it is not that the argument is nuanced, it is that the fact pattern that underlies the argument is complicated. We should simply say that, “this is complicated,” or, “this is complex.”
Great question. I’ll keep this short. You can have a great composer or a great leader or a great painting, but it is an exaggeration to call a question “great” when it is merely “good.” And when you are calling every single question “great” you are merely flattering the person asking the question. It reminds me of a pianist I knew in high school who said of C minor, “that’s a great key.” Well, they’re all more or less the same, you know, so I think that guy was just a pretentious boob. Well, all major keys are essentially the same and all minor keys are essentially the same and the minor is derived from the major. Just to be clear about that.
Now, I am all for freedom of speech and I have no desire to outlaw any language. If people want to talk trash they can go ahead. I just want to suggest that speaking simply and directly is more persuasive than using big words, or worse, misusing them. To put it another way, you stopped being cute when you were about six years old, so just forget about trying to relive your glory days.
And maybe there is a larger point here. Now and then, I run into certain elitists who claim to want to help poor people yet side with teachers’ unions in discussions about public school reform, who proliferate business regulations even though this gives big business a distinct advantage over small business, and who promote green energy that is too expensive for poor people. At some point, you have to ask yourself whether these elitists are really your friends as they claim to be, or whether they are your absolute worst enemies? Why would someone be “trying to help” you unless they assumed you were inferior to them? Do they really want you to compete with them and eat their lunch? The simple fact is that some people want money and power, but will pretend that this is the farthest thing from their minds. The only question is whether you enjoy having the wool pulled over your eyes and the fleece sheared off your body? Remember: you can only be a sheep if you let yourself be one.
The author formerly worked for the State of Hawaii as an insurance regulator, but his views as expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of his former employer. He has a B.A. from Columbia University, a J.D. from UCLA, an M.B.A. from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and a CPCU.
“Social engineering has failed, but I think that we can continue to improve incrementally through the free exchange of ideas and a relatively free market system. As we do this, however, we must remain realistic. We may not have to accept the world as it is, but we must take it as we find it. You can’t get to utopia by living in a dream world.” From page 164 of “No More Stupidtry: Insights for the Modern World,” by Lloyd Lim (Tate Publishing 2016).