By Arthur O’Sullivan
Oh, great! I write a massive text-wall about stupid terms in politics and then I use a word like “Shibboleth.” For clarification, this word was used in the Old Testament as a test of identification: if you pronounced it right, you were spared; if wrong, you were killed as an impostor. The word itself was no secret, and everyone knew its meaning, but only one group of people used it, and its use separated the in-group from the enemies.
Mainstream American politics is built on Shibboleths. Indeed, both Democrats and Republicans have words to which they reflexively resort, and likewise words which they spurn as “wrong.” Nevertheless, each party understands the words, but only one party uses it, and the other rejects it as if allergic.
I suppose it’s time to self-flagellate a little: Republicans have one of the biggest linguistic tumors known to all political discourse: “Woke.” Although invented by the left as a positive descriptor of the “socially aware,” right-wing boomers (like me) quickly used the word as a derogatory term for left-wing social activism. As soon as that happened, many on the left abandoned “woke” for other Magic Words. Now I can’t even go outside without some geezer who’s probably on social security going “WOKE this,” and “WOKE that,” like bro, I just woke up! Not only is the constant abuse of the “w”-word grating, but it actively stifles discussion. If you’re on the left and reading this, when was the last time you took your elderly relative complaining about “wokeism” seriously? If you’re on the right, have you ever convinced someone outside your sphere that “woke ideology” is a problem? In order for my argument to work, you should be saying “No!” A shibboleth like “woke” shuts down the brain, both of the one who says it, and the one who hears it. Once that happens, the discussion is dead.
Which brings me to the most difficult section of this series: there is a domain of “politics” (in quotes because it transcends the political) which is almost entirely dominated by Magic Words. Ever since some early hominid made a big-booby fertility statue, it’s been universally known that sex drives mankind crazy. Why should we be any different? In our heavily politicized society, the politics of sex and sexual identity lead to the greatest derangement. Magic Words mask this derangement.
(Please note, my own commentary on sexual identity politics is beyond the scope of this article. Here, I will only expose the derangement in the language around these issues, and how it dehumanizes and throttles otherwise important discussions.)
Consider a Shibboleth like “the LGBTQIA+ community.” For such a short phrase, it does so much legwork: it labels an infinitely diverse set of people by some vaguely related sexual characteristics, and throws them into a collective “community” with universal, unchanging social and political interests. As such, activists can appeal to this community in any argument, declaiming the “harm” brought about by that with which they disagree.
CNN’s recent (non-opinion) article “Record number of anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced this year” exemplifies this idea. In it, Annette Choi reports that “417 anti-LGBTQ bills”—some of which “ban access to gender-affirming health care for transgender youth” or require “forced outing” of students who secretly transition at public schools or even require public school sex education curricula to be published—have been introduced by Republican legislatures. This wave of bills, “comes at a time when 1 in 4 transgender adults say they have been physically attacked.” Fortunately, every ‘expert’ interviewed for the article (all two of them) denounce these Republican “attacks” as all being built on paranoid conspiracy theories. Clearly then, all 417 of these bills do clear and active harm to the LGBTQIA+ community.
There’s a tiny problem in this reporting: Choi didn’t read all 417 bills. I didn’t read all 417 bills. The ‘experts’ didn’t read all 417 bills. Yet CNN feels no shame decrying each of them as “attacks on the LGBTQ community,” regardless of the actual content therein. Again, opining on gender transition, sex education etc. is beyond this article’s scope, but can one really say that Choi’s piece advances anything? No right-wing nut (like me) would read this and be alarmed, even supposing specific bills were alarming. Only those on the left will read this and get angry about it. In that sense, the entire article is a Shibboleth: a left-wing writer signals to a similarly inclined reader that she’s “one of the good ones,” while the right is beneath contempt.
Speaking of, the right is no less deranged about this, with no fewer Shibboleths either. I’ve already caterwauled about the word “woke,” but its all-too-common co-pilot “gender ideology” is similarly vague and destructive. While there may be very real issues with the ideology-based “unconditional affirmation” paradigm (which caused the collapse of the “Gender Identity Development Service” at the Tavistock Clinic in the U.K.), instead of presenting these problems in an sensible and tactful manner, conservatives lazily vomit phrases like “WOKE GENDER IDELOGUES are COMING to GROOM our CHILDREN!” Saying this may stimulate the release of other right-wingers’ endorphins, but it does nothing less than repulse their left-wing counterparts, and subject their ideas to mockery by moderates. Again, the conversation becomes insular, as the words themselves trigger mental shutdown in both speaker and listener (sympathetic and unsympathetic).
So long as Shibboleths substitute gut-reaction for thought, every cross-party discussion will see each wait for the other to say something “wrong.” When that happens, mockery—not argument—will decide the “victor,” with nobody having learned anything of value. There’s only one way to break free of this cycle: both parties (myself included) need to figure out more mutually agreed-upon words, instead of playing an unending game of semantical Among Us.