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Tropico Perspective: Parsing language, media influence politics

December 29, 2010

Words are important. We can have discussions about politics, policies and ideas and forget the role that words play in shaping how we feel about an issue.

It seems, on its face, an obvious thing, but when news agencies dictate the terminology of debate, it's more insidious than Orwell's "1984." It's more dangerous because most of us take it for granted.

Recent revelations from News Corp. that it uses "Government Option" to describe a component of health-care reform as opposed to the term "Public Option" reveals that the company wants to shape the debate by tapping into the inherent mistrust some people have in those we elect. We became fixated on the government aspect and never had a chance to talk about the fact that it was an option.

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Sometimes the words we use have unintended results. Global warming is a fact, but two feet of snow in New England makes climatologists sound like a bunch of liars. Climate change is harder to argue with, but not very scary.

If there was a shorter, more concise way to say that Portland is going to get all the good weather by the time your grandchildren are in college and your house in La Cañada Flintridge won't be worth a damn because you won't have any water to keep your lawn green or fill your hot tub, maybe it would get some traction.

The debate really needs to be about the policy and not the terminology. Did the government bail out the banks and General Motors or did we invest in them? It looked like a bailout in the beginning, but with most of the dollars now coming back with a profit, it's looking pretty shrewd right now. Is it still a bailout if we make money on the deal and save an industry?

Referring to a series of legislative proposals commonly known as the Patient's Bill of Rights as "so-called" Patient's Bill of Rights creates the impression that it's disingenuous, that it's somehow a ruse to fool you into thinking it's a good thing. That's because the term "so-called" carries both meanings. It's not always insidious; sometimes it's simply careless.

I suppose it's a natural human tendency to want to label everything. It's kind of like texting — probably easier to get all of our political perspectives out there in fewer than 160 characters. Democrats were so afraid of being called liberal that they turned themselves into progressives, only to have Glenn Beck prove on three chalkboards how it was really the progressive movement that crucified Jesus.

Time to pick another name.

In the New Year, we need to take our healthy skepticism and start questioning the labels we use to describe our issues and ourselves. Maybe we can actually start talking again.

MICHAEL TEAHAN lives in the Adams Hill area of Glendale with a clear view of the Verdugo Mountains so he can keep an eye on things. He can be reached at michaelteahan@espressoresource.com.

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