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Lexicon of Propaganda

Dr. Thomas Sowell noted that the left uses propagandistic language to "impos[e] power by evading issues of substance through the use of seductive rhetoric."

Liberty.org Staff

January 8, 2024

The Importance of Accurate Language

Language is a key tool of authoritarians for ideological indoctrination and control. George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984, modeled on the Soviet Union under Stalin, “examines the role of truth and facts within societies and the ways in which they can be manipulated.” 1984’s dystopian elites implement Newspeak, a propagandistic language which uses euphemisms to distort or conceal reality and direct permissible thought. Some concepts cannot be expressed because their words have been purged.


The importance of truthful and precise nomenclature was noted by Confucius (cerca 500 BC). When Confucius was called upon to public service, he was asked: “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?" Confucius replied: “What is necessary is to rectify names." He continued:


  • “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.

  • “When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties [morals] and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.
    “Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”[1]


The accuracy of names, Confucius observed, is no small matter but lies at the foundation of societal strivings, incentives, and reward systems. When names are inaccurate, people become confused about true and false, good and evil, and misdirect their efforts.


Politically Correct Terms Replace Honest Words

“Politically Correct Terms Replace Honest Words” was the title of a feature citing Dr. Sowell in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 2004.[2] We will use that description here with attribution for our own discussion because of its continued aptness.


In The Thomas Sowell Reader, Dr. Sowell noted the distortion of language by politically interested parties to preempt discussion and mold public opinion. He wrote:


  • “Verbal coups have long been a specialty of the left. Totalitarian countries on the left have called themselves ‘people's democracies’ and used the egalitarian greeting ‘comrade’ — even though some comrades had the arbitrary power of life and death over other comrades.

  • “In democratic countries, where public opinion matters, the left has used its verbal talents to change the whole meaning of words and to substitute new words, so that issues would be debated in terms of their redefined vocabulary, instead of the real substance of the issues…

  • “The words games of the left– from the mantra of ‘diversity’ to the pieties of ‘compassion’ – are not just games. They are ways of imposing power by evading issues of substance through the use of seductive rhetoric.”[3]


In Knowledge and Decisions, Dr. Sowell wrote: “The point here is the inaccuracy of the usual description of what is going on, and the misconceptions (or dishonesty) behind such descriptions.”[4] English commentator Douglas Murray noted that political labels have “become an excuse not to listen to people,” and that’s “really a problem.”[5]


The first thing to know about “politically correct” vocabulary, according to Dr. Sowell, is that it is not accurate or honest. The second is that the use of false terminology distorts the true issues and imposing power. It is thus consequential and should be challenged and rejected.

Advocates of contemporary Newspeak apply ideologically predicated labels. Propagandistic nomenclature is used to manipulate public opinion by mainstreaming favored fringe and extremist ideas, while discrediting and marginalizing opposing ideas without the need to engage their substance.


Favored causes are couched in terms that make them appear virtuous and desirable. Unfavored causes are framed as reprehensible and repulsive without the need to engage their substance. These labels frequently may be factually false, dubious, or misleading. In this vision, language is used not to convey truth, but for ideological coercion and control.


False Language and Coercion

False language is frequently imposed and enforced by coercive means. Propaganda labels are adopted and promulgated as a linguistic orthodoxy by allies in the press, academia, and government. In many cases, they have become standardized and pervasive, codified in style guides or speech codes. Dr. Sowell wrote:


  • “Merely a failure to use the ever-growing list of ‘politically correct’ terms for all sorts of things can have serious repercussions. Moreover, more than a passive imposition of taboos is involved. Very often, these taboos are accompanied by militant promotions of new social visions throughout educational, religious, and other institutions. The instruments of intimidation include vaguely-worded speech codes under which students may be punished or expelled from many colleges, insulting harangues by ‘diversity consultants’ employed by corporations, colleges, and other institutions, and threats to the careers of military officers, civilian officials, and corporate executives who do not march in step with the new orthodoxies.”[6]


Under communism and its fellow-travelers, everything is a lie. Evil is dignified and legitimized with virtuous-sounding names imposed as ideological dogma masking contrary to real-world effects. Words are deprived of objective meaning and come to mean whatever those in power declare them to mean – even if these meanings are contrary to fact and internally inconsistent, changing over time to fit the agenda of the hour. Russian dissident and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stated in his Nobel lecture:



Resist False Language

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote of the importance of resisting falsehood:



Even pro-liberty voices often fall into the trap of discussing and debating topics with their propaganda labels. Some say, “What does it matter? It’s only words.” it matters a great deal as words are the medium through which facts and ideas are conveyed. The failure to define issues in accurate and understandable terms has contributed to losses of freedom at the ballot box and in court. It is no coincidence that Ronald Reagan, widely regarded as the most successful, true freedom president of the past century, was known as the great communicator for the moral clarity of his language.


Acquiescence to false nomenclature concedes dubious implicit assumptions and bases discussion on faulty grounds. By adopting propagandistic nomenclature, individuals accept the label’s ideological assertions as fact while short-circuiting verification and debate.


We recommend avoiding propagandistic labels and taking the effort to describe matters accurately. When propaganda labels must be used, one should indicate that these labels are disputed. Phrases like “so-called….” or bracketing a term in quotes can convey its disputed status.


Lexicon of Propaganda

The list below contains only some of the most widespread contemporary propagandistic language in the United States in Europe. Please message us if you have suggestions of other words and phrases you would like to see included.


Access. Dr. Sowell wrote: “The left has a whole vocabulary devoted to depicting people who do not meet standards as people who have been denied ‘access.’ Whether it is academic standards, job qualifications or credit requirements, those who do not measure up are said to have been deprived of ‘opportunity,’ ‘rights’ or ‘social justice.’”[8]


Community organizers. Agitation and propaganda (agitprop) specialists who fuel grievances and sow division, tribalism, and ethnic conflict, frequently in the model of international communist revolutionary movements, have been rebranded as “community organizers.”


Controversial. Mainstream platforms and beliefs disliked by the far left. Conversely, fringe platforms, ideas, and figures of the far left are never referred to as controversial by leftist media.


DEI. While posed by its proponents as diversity, equity, and inclusion, critics have cited the policy’s actual effect as “division, exclusion, and indoctrination.”[9]


Election Deniers. This term, which properly applies to those who reject the results of regular democratic elections, has been bastardized to falsely associated this behavior with those who exercise constitutional rights to protest the policies of far-left officials. When the mother of a murdered son protested that a California district attorney dropped murder charges against the killer, far-left DA Price called the mother and protesters “election deniers” because, he stated, “we won the election.”[10] According to the Price’s logic, there is no right to protest dereliction of duty or abuses of power by elected officials. This definition offers a carte blanche for leftist officials to ignore the law and oppress citizens. The term “election denier” is never applied in the leftist press to ideological allies[11] who deny valid electoral results.[12]


Exploitation. Dr. Sowell wrote: “Exploitation is often misused as an insult or claim about someone’s emotional state, rather than representing any fact, as is the case for inner city stores, which church higher prices for struggle to survive, instead of reaping unusually high profits.”


Far-right. Like “fascist,” a term applied by the far left to those who oppose their policies, regardless of their actual political or ideological views. Conversely, the term “far left” is absent from the vocabulary of the left, regardless of how extreme or violent the conduct of ideological allies.


Fascist. Fascism refers to the version of socialist ideology practiced by Mussolini and Hitler. Throughout the Cold War era, the term was used by the Communist government of the Soviet Union for propaganda attacks against the United States and Western Europe. Today, it has been adopted as the go-to insult of unhinged leftists for virtually anything and anyone they dislike, and especially those they perceive as a threat to their power. In response to leftists calling Harvard University “fascist” after the resignation of serial plagiarist Claudine Gay, Christopher Tremoglie observed:


  • “Numerous posts on social media have referred to Gay’s resignation as the result of the work of fascists. Because if we know anything, it is that Harvard University, the beacon of ultra-left-wing political idealism, the zenith of liberal education, is full of fascists. It’s the latest example, and quite possibly the dumbest one, of how emotionally distressed leftists throw around the term ‘fascist’ whenever they are unable to process something that displeases them emotionally. It’s the intellectual and ‘mature’ retort of sticking their tongues out at classmates they didn’t like in kindergarten…

  • ”As comical as it is, labeling people from the country’s pre-eminent left-wing academic institution as ‘fascists’ is indicative of just how unhinged and unserious such people are…There is no serious and legitimate fascist threat in this country.

  • Cries of fascism are nothing more than unhinged insults hurled at people who do things that are disliked by liberals, Democrats, socialists, and communists. It is all performative, hyperbolic, hysteria meant to distract from their anti-American and corrupt behavior and reinforce the notion of a class of perpetually aggrieved. The fact that these people have now resorted to calling Harvard fascist should discredit any further use of the term in political discourse.”[13]


Foreign Aid. Economist Thomas Sowell wrote:


  • “What is called ‘foreign aid’ are transfers of wealth from foreign governmental organizations, as well as international agencies, to governments of poorer countries. The term ‘aid’ assumes a priori that such transfers will, in fact, aid the poorer countries’ economies to develop. In some cases it does, but in other cases foreign aid simply enables existing politicians to enrich themselves himself through graft and to dispense largesse in politically strategic ways to others who help to keep them in power. Because it is a transfer of wealth to governments, as distinguished from investments in private enterprises, foreign aid has encouraged many countries to set up government-run enterprises that have failed, or to create palaces, plazas or other things meant to impress onlookers rather than produce things that raise the material standard of living in the recipient country.”[14]


Homeless. Dr. Sowell, who has lived for decades in the San Francisco Bay Area and witnessed the vagrancy crisis while raising his children, wrote:


  • “Another word that the left has virtually banished from the language is ‘bum.’ Centuries of experience with idlers who refused to work and who hung around on the streets making a nuisance — and sometimes a menace — of themselves were erased from our memories as the left verbally transformed those same people into a sacred icon, ‘the homeless.’ Crimes committed by bums are covered up by the media, by verbally transforming ‘the homeless’ into ‘transients’ or ‘drifters’ whenever they commit crimes. Thus ‘the homeless’ are the only group you never hear of committing any crimes. More to the point, third parties’ notions are imposed by the power of the government to raise our taxes to support people who are raising hell on our streets and in parks where it has often become too dangerous for our children to play.”[15]


Inadequate Citation. Serial plagiarism committed by hard-left allies is soft-peddled as “inadequate citation” which allegedly does not violate academic standards. Even the leftist Boston Globe challenged Harvard’s verbal evasions.[16] The left-leaning Atlantic observed that “academics debase their profession when they redefine plagiarism to suit their politics.”[17]


Infrastructure. Per the Oxford Dictionary, infrastructure is “the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.” Per far-left Senator Kirstin Gillibrand and the New York Times,[18]“Paid leave is infrastructure. Child care is infrastructure. Caregiving is infrastructure.”[19]


Market. Dr. Sowell wrote:

  • “‘The market’ is another such misleading figure of speech. Both the friends and foes of economic decision-making processes refer to ‘the market’ as if it were an institution parallel with, and alternative to, the government as an institution. The government is indeed an institution, but ‘the market’ is nothing more than an option for each individual to choose among numerous existing institutions, or to fashion new arrangements suited to his own situation and tastes.”[20]

  • “A recent angry e-mail from a reader said that certain issues should not be determined by ‘the dictates of the market.’ With a mere turn of a phrase, he had turned reality upside down. Decisions by people free to make their mutual accommodations with other free people were called ‘dictates’ while having third parties tell all of them what they could and couldn't do was not.”[21]


Militants. A euphemism for Islamic terrorists used by the British Broadcasting Corporation,[22] New York Times, Reuters, CBS News, and other left-leaning outlets to whitewash terrorism.[23]


Populism. Democracy and public opinion contrary to the will of ruling privileged elites. Regressive leftist policies trading handouts for votes and the politicians who implement them are never referred to as populist.


Progressives. Regressive leftists who promote oppression, exploitation, and inequality through de-democratization, surrogate decision-making, state control of the economy, educational indoctrination, politicization of justice, and more. “Progressive” is a propagandistic label arising from the so-called “progressive doctrine” of Karl Marx, and not because of any relation to actual human progress.


Protestors: Dr. Sowell wrote: “Note that ‘protestors’ is the politically correct term for rioters, vandals, or storm troopers.”[24]


Recession. Two quarters of negative gross domestic product growth has historically been considered the technical indicator of a recession. This definition has been suspended or challenged to provide cover for leftist presidents during economic decline by media allies.The New York Times acknowledged that the Biden Administration has “tried to ditch a shorthand definition for what constitutes a recession.”[25]The Biden administration has engaged in a media campaign of “recession denial” and far-left NYT columnist Paul Krugman urged others to “ignore the two-quarter rule.”[26] Leftist media allies in the Washington Post,[27] National Public Radio,[28]and elsewhere have fallen into line.


Rights. Dr. Sowell wrote:


  • "’Rights,’ for example, have become an all-purpose term used for evading both facts and logic by saying that people have a ‘right’ to whatever the left wants to give them by taking from others. For centuries, rights were exemptions from government power, as in the Bill of Rights. Now the left has redefined rights as things that can be demanded from the taxpayers, or from private employers or others, on behalf of people who accept no mutual obligations, even for common decency.”[29]


Society. Dr. Sowell wrote:


  • “Figures of speech about ‘society’ as decision-maker ignore the diversity of individual preferences which are responsible for many of the very phenomena in question – whether economic, social, or political.”[30]

  • "’Society’ is not the only figure of speech that confuses the actual decision-making units and conceals the determining incentives and constraints.”[31]


Legislative Nomenclature. Legislation is routinely named after its proponents’ professed intentions rather than its actual effect. A more cynical view would be that Western politicians have adopted Soviet nomenclature tactics in routinely named bills with titles contrary to their actual effects to propagandize and deceive the public. The Conversation noted that “in Congress, the name of a bill may have nothing to do with what’s in it – it’s all about salesmanship.”[32] Some examples include:


The Inflation Reduction Act, which Joe Biden subsequently admitted “has nothing to do with inflation” reduction, but drives long-term inflation higher by adding to the national debt with massive spending and borrowing.[33]


The Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare, which the nonprofit Rand Corporation noted at the time would make healthcare more expensive and less accessible for many[34] and which has been subsequently found to have more than doubled the cost of individual health insurancewith a 129% premium increase for workers and families between 2013 and 2019.[35]


No Child Left Behind, which left U.S. students increasingly behind international competitors through perverse incentives that work against achievement.[36]


The Patriot Act, which infringes on basic Constitutional rights while professing to defend “patriotism.”[37]

References

[1] The Analects of Confucius, Book 13, Verse 3. Translated by James R. Ware, 1980. https://classics.mit.edu/Confucius/analects.mb.txt

[2] “Politically Correct Terms Replace Honest Words.” South Florida Sun-Sentinel, August 6, 2004. https://www.sun-sentinel.com/2004/08/06/politically-correct-terms-replace-honest-words/

[3] Sowell, Thomas. “The Left’s Vocabulary.” in The Thomas Sowell Reader, Basic Books, 2011. Kindle edition, pp. 137-138.

[4] Sowell, Thomas. Knowledge and Decisions. Basic Books, 1996.

[5] Debate hosted by Pangburn Philosophy in New York, May 3, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCny7t5NrCg

[6] Sowell, Thomas. Knowledge and Decisions. Basic Books, 1996.

[7] Solzhenitsyn, Aleksander. Nobel Lecture, 1970. https://www.solzhenitsyncenter.org/nobel-lecture

[8] Sowell, Thomas. “The Left’s Vocabulary.” In the Thomas Sowell Reader. Basic Book, 2011., Kindle Edition, p. 138.

[9] Kokai, Mitch. “Wisconsin Scores Victory Against DEI.” John Locke Society, December 19, 2023. https://www.johnlocke.org/wisconsin-scores-victory-against-dei/

[10] Clark, Jeffrey. “Mother of murdered son calls for California Bay Area DA to resign after killer's murder charges dropped.” Fox News, December 22, 2023. https://www.foxnews.com/media/mother-murdered-son-calls-california-bay-area-da-resign-killers-murder-charges-dropped

[11] Carney, Timothy. “Stacey Abrams is still an election denier.” Washington Examiner, October 18, 2022. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/stacey-abrams-is-still-an-election-denier

[12] Morgan, Piers. “Hillary’s election denial bulls—t is just as delusional as Trump’s.” New York Post, September 25, 2023. https://nypost.com/2023/09/25/hillarys-election-denial-bullst-is-just-as-delusional-as-trumps/

[13] Tremoglie, Christopher. “And just like that, Harvard University is fascist.” Washington Examiner, January 3, 2024. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/and-just-like-that-harvard-university-is-fascist

[14] Sowell, Thomas. Basic Economics. Basic Books, 5th edition, 2014. Kindle Edition, p.519.

[15] Sowell, Thomas. “The Left’s Vocabulary.” In the Thomas Sowell Reader. Basic Book, 2011. Kindle Edition, p. 137.

[16] Boston Globe Editorial Board. “Did Claudine Gay plagiarize or not? Harvard should be clear.” The Boston Globe, December 18, 2023. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2023/12/18/opinion/claudine-gay-harvard-plagiarism-academic-standards/

[17] Harper, Tyler Austin. “The Real Harvard Scandal.” The Atlantic, January 3, 2024. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2024/01/claudine-gay-harvard-plagiarism/677007/

[18] Kinder, Molly and Martha Ross. “Commentary: the economy that allows you to get your job done is broken.” New York Times, April 13, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/13/opinion/care-economy-infrastructure-biden-child-care-elderly.html

[19] Lapin, Tamar. “‘Unicorns are infrastructure’: Sen. Gillibrand mocked for definition of Biden plan.” New York Post, April 7, 2021.

https://nypost.com/2021/04/07/sen-gillibrand-mocked-for-renaming-bidens-infrastructure-plan/

[20] Sowell, Thomas. Knowledge and Decisions. Basic Books, 1996 edition, pp. 41-42.

[21] Sowell, Thomas. “The Left’s Vocabulary.” In the Thomas Sowell Reader. Basic Book, 2011. Kindle Edition, p. 137.

[22] Youngs, Ian and Paul Glynn. “BBC defends policy not to call Hamas 'terrorists' after criticism.” British Broadcasting Corporation, October 11, 2024. https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-67076341

[23] Peyser, Andrea. “Liberal media refuses to call out Hamas for who they are: Terrorists.” New York Post, October 10, 2023. https://nypost.com/2023/10/10/liberal-media-refuses-to-call-out-hamas-for-who-they-are-terrorists/

[24] Sowell, Thomas. “Higher Education and Low Comedy.” In the Thomas Sowell Reader. Basic Books (2011), Kindle Edition, p. 341.

[25] “Biden Insists There’s No Recession as He Confronts Latest Economic Risk.” New York Times, July 27, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/27/business/biden-recession-us-economy.html

[26] Breck, Dumas. “Biden admin, allies make recession denial push ahead of GDP report.” Fox Business, July 28, 2022. https://www.foxbusiness.com/politics/biden-admin-allies-make-recession-denial-push-ahead-gdp-report

[27] “What two negative GDP quarters means for 'recession.'” Washington Post, July 28, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/07/28/recession-gdp-politics/

[28] Gura, David. “U.S. economy just had a 2nd quarter of negative growth. Is it in a recession?” National Public Radio, July 28, 2022. https://www.npr.org/2022/07/28/1113649843/gdp-2q-economy-2022-recession-two-quarters

[29] Sowell, Thomas. “The Left’s Vocabulary.” In the Thomas Sowell Reader. Basic Book, 2011. Kindle Edition, p. 138.

[30] Sowell, Thomas. Knowledge and Decisions. Basic Books, 1996 edition, p. 79

[31] Sowell, Thomas. Knowledge and Decisions. Basic Books, 1996 edition, pp. 41-42.

[32] Bradbery, Angela. “In Congress, the name of a bill may have nothing to do with what’s in it – it’s all about salesmanship.” The Conversation, August 2, 2022. https://theconversation.com/in-congress-the-name-of-a-bill-may-have-nothing-to-do-with-whats-in-it-its-all-about-salesmanship-188040

[33] Miran, Stephen. “All for Nothing: Assessing the Inflation Reduction Act, one year later.” City Journal, August 22, 2023. https://www.city-journal.org/article/the-inflation-reduction-act-all-for-nothing

[34] Nowak, Sarah A., Christine Eibner, David M. Adamson, Evan Saltzman. “Will the Affordable Care Act Make Health Care More Affordable?” Rand Corporation, 2013. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9734.html

[35] Haislmaier, Edmund and Abigail Slagle, “Obamacare Has Doubled the Cost of Individual Health Insurance.” Heritage Foundation, March 21, 2021. https://www.heritage.org/health-care-reform/report/obamacare-has-doubled-the-cost-individual-health-insurance

[36] Ryan, James E. “Perverse Incentives of the No Child Left Behind Act.” New York University Law Review 79 (2004): 932-989. https://www.nyulawreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/NYULawReview-79-3-Ryan.pdf

[37] Ward, Artemus. “The USA PATRIOT Act.” Bill of Rights Institute. https://billofrightsinstitute.org/essays/the-usa-patriot-act [Undated article, accessed January 10, 2024]/

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