Political Euphemisms

Do political euphemisms help us communicate about our political beliefs or do they hurt us by leading others to believe that our ideas require a more palatable “brand”?

I started thinking about this question after listening to Preet Bharara's interview with Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action. Moms Demand Action uses the term “gun sense” to describe laws that would reduce the incidence of gun deaths while respecting the Second Amendment. At first, the term seemed helpful to me because it highlights the common sense nature of their policy proposals. That is, they don’t want to take away all guns. They only want to relegate gun sales to those whom we agree, as a community, ought to be allowed to have them, in accordance with the Constitution and with our shared values.

But I also recognized that there’s a danger in using euphemisms to describe our political goals. When we obfuscate “gun limits” with appropriate, but nonetheless euphemistic, terms like “gun sense,” we beg the question: Is there something worth hiding about limits on guns? Do we have ulterior motives (e.g. stripping the populace of their weapons so that they are more vulnerable to government imposition)? The answer to those questions is clearly no, but I think we stand to help our cause and work toward our goals more effectively if we talk about them openly, rather than sanitizing them with friendly terms, however accurate they may be.

There are both a parallel and a counterexample in the politics that surround abortion. Conservatives use a euphemism, “pro-life,” to describe their belief that women ought not to have access to abortions, and it’s effective: Who can argue with “pro-life”? I like life; you like life. Their success with that branding challenges my belief that direct language is more effective than euphemistic language about policy proposals. But I think that its success is less instructive than the failure of our equivalent term, “pro-choice.” We use that euphemism so that the call for the legalization of abortion is framed around liberty rather than around the medical procedure of abortion. It’s accurate to communicate our position that way, because access to abortion is about women's liberty. (Ironically, many libertarians and liberty-minded Republicans don't believe that their ideology extends to women's bodies.) But it remains a euphemism for our immediate, practical goal: making it easier for women to access abortions and, therefore, to allow the incidence of abortions to increase. By concealing the term “abortion” behind the euphemism of “choice,” we actually contribute to the stigmatization that makes responsible abortions hard to access in the first place.

Let me say: I am naive. I have very little experience in politics and it’s possible (likely) that the Democratic establishment's use of “pro-choice” and Moms Demand Action's use of “gun sense” are far more effective than more direct or verbose descriptions of their proposals would be. I also recognize that hand-wringing and excessive consideration about how “the other side” perceives our beliefs can distract us from our goals and cause us to neglect the people who are most impacted by a proposed policy. (I think of post-election coverage of theretofore dormant and numerous white nationalists, which seemed disproportionate compared to the representation of immigrant voices, Black voices, and other marginalized people who are put most at risk by the Trump Administration.) But those discussions only hurt us when they undermine a promotional push for a candidate or a policy. Here, I think it's worthwhile to wonder whether political euphemisms hurt us or help us, and in what circumstances. Insofar as we need to convince scared, misinformed gun owners about our proposals to make them happen (and, if past constitutional battles are any lesson, we do), then iterating on the language we use to describe our goals can mean the difference between widening cultural divides and bringing our proposals closer to law.