SOTU: a Masterwork of Co-option.

Sheila Broflovski ‘solves’ the ‘problem’ of ‘obscenity’.

A professor of Political Science at my school described the modern left-right paradigm for the class today — to paraphrase, he summed up the political landscape of the US with the all-too familiar perspective: ‘conservatives want less government, and liberals want more government’.

I opined, silently, in my seat.  Sensing my disapproval, the professor asked if anyone had a differing perspective on the country’s political spectrum.  I raised my hand and pointed out the perspective of this oft-regurgitated axiom of political theory.  rephrased the point: Conservatives want liberty, and Liberals want safety.  When it was suggested by a classmate that I was coloring the axiom to suit my political bent, I defended my choice of language.  This phrasing, I argued, is the happy middle ground between the original, popular formulation that the professor used, and a statement that more closely aligns with my actual opinion: Conservatives want freedom, and Liberals want slavery.

When placed together, these three phrasings of the same observation illustrate the powerful effect nomenclature can have on a statement — and sheds a pinhole of light onto the vastness of the power of language analysis with respect to ideology:

Conservatives want less government, and Liberals want more government.

Conservatives want liberty, and Liberals want safety.

Conservatives want you to be free, and Liberals want you to be a slave. 

The words we chose to use when we frame our thoughts betray our underlying perspective.  Language is the seat of understanding, and can be deconstructed to suggest motivation and perspective.  Analyzing the language used by self-styled ‘progressive liberals’  (forgive the quotes — the term itself is completely removed from cogency as a representation of meaning, as is ‘conservative’.  These two terms as used in modern US politics do not come anywhere near connoting accurate definitions) yields a lexicon that I dub the language of Co-option.  This liberal dictionary is used by a vast majority of the public out of rote; most people do not consider deeply the meaning of the language they use.  Those that speak this dialect knowingly craft the language, and therefore, the thinking, of the larger public who adopts the dialect and spreads the meme and built-in collectivist programming therein.

This Language of Co-option is the language of our classrooms.  It is the language of our politicians.  It is Hegel.  It is Sociology.

Let’s vivisect the following liberal sociological speech pattern:

is bad for society.  We should do so that happens instead.”

To make the point that much clearer, let’s translate the above formulation into political rhetoric:

“For American families, x is a real problem, so our administration is committed to policy so that z will result.”

To define our terms:  the value in this construction represents a ‘problem’ — to be specific, some suggested verifiable disadvantageous phenomena, that would be mitigated by taking action.  These instances exist; we can plug in some terms for our variables to create cogent statements:  Suffocating is problematic for humans, therefore humans should breathe.  This construction is cogent because human beings need to breathe in order to avoid suffocation, which is indeed, harmful to humans.  However, such statements rarely provide people with new insights, because cause and effect tend to be plainly apparent; most everyone knows that they need to breathe to live.  It seems tedious to think such obvious statements would warrant comment, let alone, say, a State of the Union address.

The power of this statement only manifests when coupled with action — the y variable.  The point of x, of stating an obvious ‘problem’, is merely to gain the agreement of the audience to the that will follow.  In fact, in political speech, and need not have any real connection at all.  This effect has been pointed out by others, including the research of behaviorist Ellen Langer, who’s research suggests merely by adding any explanation to a request one can improve the chance of a ‘yes’ in response.

For example, take this phrase from the State of the Union Address last night:

“There are other steps we can take to help families make ends meet, and few are more effective at reducing inequality and helping families pull themselves up through hard work than the Earned Income Tax Credit.”

to simplify:  “Poverty (x) is a problem for people, and we can fix inequality (z) with the EITC (y).”

Let’s break it down critically.  Poverty is always a problem for a family, as it is averse to survival.  If you don’t eat, you starve — as obvious as the sun shining in the sky.  This statement alone is almost as bereft of importance as ‘nice day, huh?’ or ‘how about those (insert local sports team name)!’ The President must have had a reason to make the comment.  The statement made in this way implies poverty is a fixable problem in society, rather than a product of the human condition or the laws of our natural world.  The first law of the human condition is scarcity; there is never enough of any resource to satisfy demand in any economy.  When coupled with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, any natural system in the universe behaves the same way.  POTUS makes the statement about poverty implying a collective problem that can be solved by some action.

The showstopper for libertarians is usually y.  The solution to the problem offered by the state is ALWAYS aggressive force.  In the above example, that aggression is in the form of extortion — specifically, theft of property through threat of violent action via taxation.  This is stated in a positive light as phrased; the Earned Income Tax Credit is sold to the public as a tax break for some people, but comes at the expense of everyone else.  The fact that your government is extorting less money from some than from others is aptly defined as ‘inequality’, but this obvious truth is distorted and reversed completely with Co-optive language to masquerade as benevolence, yielding the aberration cited.

This construct is the essence of the Hegelian ‘crisis, reaction, solution’, and is a hallmark of Co-optive speech and thought, and permeates our zeitgeist.  Freedom-minded individuals hear this language and know just how ubiquitous it is in society — keep it in mind the next time you hear someone spray about what ‘We’ must ‘do’.  Co-option is built in to the culture and mindset of authoritarianism, and in fact, the democratic process itself as naked tyranny of the supposed majority.

Please, feel free to post your co-optive, authoritarian quotes in response below!

Narrating the Decline from a Classroom Desk,


18 thoughts on “SOTU: a Masterwork of Co-option.

  1. Repucci,

    Thank you for an interesting view of the proposals many politicians offer the citizens of their country. Your explanation was logical and clear. However, it leaves me with a question: If the proposals are often (or all) attempts to medicate an illness which cannot be cured (such as poverty), then what should politicians instead be offering?

    It seems that they have been elected with the expectation (from the citizens) that they will improve (or at least try to improve) the lives the of people they represent. Should we not strive to make the best of a bad scenario, even one which is ultimately unchangeable?

    While I agree with your notion of the language, I find it difficult (myself) to complain about a situation without also having a solution or alternative option to offer.

    • Thanks, kickaplan!

      Solutions? When a libertarian wants solutions, they look to markets rather than to government. From my perspective, the state, including the democratic process, is antithetical to problem-solving by design. The state is merely the coalescence of abdicated liberty, centralized and vested in a dialithic monument to collective thought. The best problem-solving engine possible is a system of interdependent experimenters working voluntarily in a merit-based system. An economy of freely competing ideas always produces a multitude of solutions to problems quickly and cost-effectively.

      I would suggest to any working bureaucrat with an interest in my vote or my consent they would be wise to understand that the sole legitimate role of the state is to protect individual liberty within the free market, and to actively seek to check and divide the power of the state. Want my vote? Use your office to repeal laws, rather than enact more of them. De-legislate and you have my support.

    • I am interested in hearing more about your idea for interdependent experimenters working voluntarily in a merit-based system; could you elaborate?

      As for freely competing ideas, I am in complete agreement.

      Although, it seems that having a single leader take charge of a project, for example, allows that project to move forward with greater expediency, efficiency, and focus- that is, as long as that leader’s vision for the project is on par with the members being led. Whether or not that project yields an ideal trajectory, or is even successful, is something else entirely.

      Your idea sounds similar to the current state of international affairs, however, this system still uses institutions, such as the WTO, to govern said affairs. What are your thoughts on that, as a libertarian?

      I’m also curious about which laws you would like to see repealed and why? Also, are there any which you feel are necessary?

    • kickaplan,

      By ‘interdependent experimenters working voluntarily in a merit-based system’ I was referring to free markets. Markets provide incentive for innovation, and exist as an emergent phenomenon of civilization. Look at tech innovation as an example of the power of free markets.

      As for the WTO or any other institutions, I see no possible positive effect on problem solving for free people when the power elite collaborate. Leadership is a fine, necessary thing, but can only be enacted ethically when said leader has the consent of the led, which no political leader in history has ever even solicited, let alone received. I see no reason for a third party to assert hegemony over markets or free people.

      Finally, as to which laws I would seek to repeal…all of them, less those laws that protect individual liberty. Natural Law is real — all else is mere drawing on paper. As a compromise, I would support a system built on the Articles of Confederation coupled with the Bill of Rights as the supreme and only laws of the nation.

    • Repucci,

      There seems to be at least one key issue which has been overlooked in your defense of free markets in place of government: accountability.

      Without accountability to a supposedly objective, higher 3rd party, what is to stop businesses from cutting corners, exploiting their clients, and reducing their product/service quality? Taken one step further, what is to stop someone from just killing someone else over a disagreement?

      Even if businesses kept up their standards, it is my suspicion that the average person would become skeptical of trusting a business not held to regulations or consequences.

      While individuals can be rational, masses are easily panicked- therefore the system which you’ve described would likely, maybe only gradually, be subjected to the more chaotic nature of people and an eventual anarchic breakdown.

      This breakdown would be especially probable if the US were the only country to implement your abovementioned terms; with the reasoning being that other government-run countries would not want to transact business with a government-absent country.

      In theory, your ideas may work and be successful, however, the variables with which you are working (people) are not ideal. While these variables are subject to change over time, the likelihood of reaching the necessary degree of change in the appropriate direction within your life time is, unfortunately, highly unlikely.

  2. “Conservatives want less government, and Liberals want more government.
    Conservatives want liberty, and Liberals want safety.
    Conservatives want you to be free, and Liberals want you to be a slave.”

    I find all of these laughable. To the first add “except with regard to the military-industrial complex”. To the second & third add “except with regard to abortion”. Actually, the second and third could use a number of extra clauses but it’s time to head to campus.

    • Terry,

      Thank you for pointing out the inadequacies of broad generalizations — I hope you sussed the larger point. I would say, however, I am not as confident as you that the old “conservatives are pro-life and liberals are anti-war” axiom continues to hold. Increasingly, conservatives are fleeing their stance on social controls (tea party anyone?), and looking at the last 5 years in congress (and the White House for that matter), I’d say the heads of the democrat party are far more hawkish than any member of the GOP. Our ‘liberal’ president (not to mention Sec State Clinton) has not only embroiled us in foreign wars continually, but has done so without the blessing of congress, which is utter tyranny. Have a good class.


    • With regard to the first point in your original post, neither conservatives nor liberals are against a large federal government; they just argue over what should be big and what should be small.

      “…conservatives are fleeing their stance on social controls (tea party anyone?)”
      So you’re arguing that, for example, Ted Cruz has given up the bible-thumper obsession with restricting the right to an abortion? Do you have any evidence of that?

      “Our ‘liberal’ president (not to mention Sec State Clinton) has not only embroiled us in foreign wars continually, but has done so without the blessing of congress, which is utter tyranny.”

      Could you provide a list of these foreign wars?

    • Terry,

      As an illustration of Conservatives fleeing their oft-stereotyped social positions, I would point to the steady increase in libertarian and independent voter rolls, driven largely by the generational transition within the party. Check with any large polling operation to verify.

      As for a list of ongoing foreign wars/US military operations under the Obama administration, I can oblige: Syria, Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq. Gitmo is still open. Terry, I have to say, I am shocked that you would need me to provide this list for you — you seem like an informed guy — and your comment smacks of intellectual dishonesty. If you are setting me up to make a point, just skip the step of demanding evidence we both know exist, and make your point.

    • Let’s come back to the generational shift at a later point.

      As to the alleged liberal war mongering…

      First, note the shifting wording from “…has not only embroiled us in foreign wars continually…” to “…ongoing foreign wars/US military operations under the Obama administration…”

      The first [embroiling] implies starting, the second [ongoing] correctly specifies that a previous ‘conservative’ administration started the wars. I put conservative in quotes because I recognize that a good case could be made that the idiots in the Bush administration were not actual conservatives. But they sure as heck weren’t liberals.

      Also, note the shift from foreign wars to foreign wars/US military operations. An interesting example of category expansion.

      Iraq: started by republicans if not conservatives
      Afghanistan: started by republicans if not conservatives
      Pakistan: started by republicans if not conservatives
      Libya: NATO military operation with US logistical support. The lack of military operations by the US widely cited by republicans as a ‘lack of leadership’ by the republicans.
      Egypt: nonsense. If you have any evidence of US military operations in Egypt, provide a source.
      Syria: as with Egypt.

      In your post you correctly point out “The words we chose to use when we frame our thoughts betray our underlying perspective.”

      I’m not accusing you of intellectual dishonesty. I’m accusing you of ‘being hoist on your petard’ so to speak.

    • Hoist away. We are now again in the familiar territory of rationalizing continued bad policy by arguing that the previous administration did it first.

    • I won’t defend the continuation of bad policy but in a post that points out that “Language is the seat of understanding, and can be deconstructed to suggest motivation and perspective.” don’t be surprised when I point out your obvious motivations. Liberals are war-mongers when they don’t immediately terminate wars started by conservatives…but you’re strangely silent about how that makes conservatives the peacemakers.

      In the spirit of compromise let us vituperate the Obama administration [most definitely not liberals though] for a different continuation of bad republican policy, the obscene surveillance state now in place in the US. I assure you that I’m at least as disgusted as you; assuming he once had principles he’s betrayed them. This way we can castigate the administration for real wrongs instead of fictitious foreign wars.

    • I’d argue LAR is making a false dichotomy (prompted, no doubt, by years of being offered that dichotomy by school and media). Yes, it’s a broad generalizations and generalizations can be useful, but in this case I think a touch more complexity is in order. At the very least we can use the Nolan Chart to differentiate the sorts of big governments Democrats and Republicans want from the small government that classical liberals want.

    • Yes, it is a sweeping generalization and yes, it was prompted by my professors’ statement. The left-right fallacy is all too familiar and connotes very little useful perspective.

  3. Very interesting post-and so true–certainly food for thought–words–words–words–they either enable a situation or they actually change something for good.

  4. “The showstopper for libertarians is always z. The solution to the problem offered by the state is ALWAYS aggressive force.”

    It depends on the sort of libertarian. For a consequentialist, z is the problem because it involves unintended consequences that tend to make political solutions do more harm than good. For a rights-arguing libertarian the problem is *process*. It’s the path from y to z that involves the use of force and that use of force, independent of consequences, is morally repugnant.

  5. This is more of a side note, but in your example with poverty and the variables x, y, and z, (z) should be “equality”, not “inequality” since you have described it as the intended result of (y) which was EITC in your example.

    Also, you say that the “showstopper” for you is (z), and then go on to discredit the solution, which you defined as (y). Please try to be consistent in your argument if you want to be taken seriously.

Please keep it civil

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