12 Phrases Progressives Need To Ditch (And What We Can Say Instead)

Author: February 24, 2013 5:53 am
12 phrases progressives need to ditch (and what we can say instead)

If we want people to think well of our agenda, then we need to use our own words, not the GOP’s. Here are 12 phrases progressives need to ditch. (See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil)

One of the most frustrating things about being a liberal has been watching conservatives win the big fights over and over again over the past four decades. Why does the right wing keep winning when their agenda has proven so bad for America? It’s partly because they’ve taken over the conversation and have set the terms of the debate by choosing the actual words we use to discuss the issues we care about. We need to take a long, hard look at some phrases progressives need to ditch, because they put our agenda in a bad light. If we want the American people to think well of our causes, then we need to use our own words.

Here are 12 phrases progressives need to ditch once and for all.

(1). Big Business: (Also referred to as: Corporate America; Multinationals; Corporate Interests) When we use any of these words, we sound like wild-eyed, radical left-wingers right off the bat. After all, most Americans think of themselves as pro-business. When we refer to “big business” in a negative way, people think, “what’s wrong with being a ‘big business?'” After all, they’d like their own businesses to get “big.” Nor do they have bad associations with the words “corporate” or “multinational.” They may even sound kind of exciting and worldly. So, when we make our cases against greedy CEOs and their companies, “Big Business” is one of the phrases progressives should ditch. Instead, progressives can try: Unelected Government. This puts big, global, multinationals in their proper context as unelected entities with once-unheard of amounts of power, whose actions have immense impact on our lives, and which can only be held in check by equally large entities like governments and unions.

They’re not “entitlements.” Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment are “earned benefits” that we PAY for.

(2). Entitlements: I keep hearing reporters from NPR and other supposedly left or centrist news outlets use the word “entitlements,” and it makes me froth at the mouth. It implies that our country is overrun by lazy, fat crazy people who just want handouts. Any statement that includes the word “entitlements” is one of the phrases progressives need to ditch. Instead, we progressives should try: Earned Benefits. This term not only makes our social safety net sound better it’s also way more accurate. Programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment are all forms of insurance. We all pay into them for our entire working lives — via a percent of our income — and then collect from them when the time comes. And the Right clearly wants to steal our earned benefits and give them to Wall Street.

What’s so great about “free market capitalism?”

(3). Free Market Capitalism: (Also referred to as: Capitalism, Free Markets, and Supply-Side Economics) Like “Fascism” and “Communism,” “Free Market Capitalism” is a 20th-century utopian ideal has failed badly — at least in its purest form. Yet most of us Americans hold the dream of “Free Market Capitalism” dear, and idealize ourselves as plucky, can-do, inventive entrepreneurs. Many of us also still like to think the system’s fair and that we all have a chance. So, “Free Market Capitalism” is probably one of the phrases progressives should ditch. Instead, progressives should try: Socialized Risk, Privatized Profits. This best describes our four-decades-long cruel and failed experiment in unfettered capitalism, as practiced since the 1970’s. And that’s what “free market capitalism” has really become.

“Investing in America” sounds way better than “government spending.”

(4). Government Spending: (Also referred to as: Taxes, Burden, and Inconvenient) Conservatives talk about “government spending” like it’s this awful thing, but the fact is, communities across the US benefit from U.S. tax dollars, especially all those “small-government” red states. Yes, red states receive way more federal tax money than they contribute. But the Right has made “government spending” sound like a bad thing, so it’s definitely one of the phrases progressives need to ditch. Instead, progressives should try: Investing in America. Because, that’s what our federal tax dollars do. Our tax dollars invest in education and infrastructure that wouldn’t prove profitable for businesses, but which still benefit society in the long-run. As John T. Harvey so aptly wrote in Forbes, “the problem in a nutshell, is that not everything that is profitable is of social value and not everything of social value is profitable.”

“Gay Marriage?” As opposed to a REAL marriage?

(5) Gay Marriage/Same Sex Marriage: While these phrases are accurate on a technical basis, they play into the conservative notion that marriage between two men or two women is somehow different and inferior than a “real” marriage between a man and a woman. That’s why these seemingly harmless terms are still phrases progressives need to ditch. Instead, progressives should try: Marriage Equality.

“Gun Control” sounds too controlling.

(6). Gun Control: Yikes! That sounds like you want to control people, and all those “freedom loving” folks who want to bully gays and people of color into staying in their place will use that word against you. Every time you complain about the latest tragic news about people getting shot for no good reasons, these gun nuts will whine about how you’re trying to “control” them and take away their “freedom.” So let’s add “Gun Control” to the list of phrases progressives need to ditch. Instead, progressives can try: Gun Safety. It sounds so nice, non-coercive, and reasonable … plus, it’s true. Most of us aren’t against guns, we just want them used safely. Or, for some added punch, you can even try: Gun Violence Prevention.

“Homophobic” is one of the phrases progressives need to ditch. They’re not “scared,” they’re “@ssholes.”

(7). Homophobic: People who oppose equal rights for gays, lesbians, and gender atypical individuals are not “afraid,” as the “phobic” suffix implies. They are mean, bigoted @ssholes. That’s why “homophobic” is an awful, misleading phrase that lets bullies get away with hating. And it’s definitely among the phrases progressives need to ditch. Instead, progressives should try: Anti-GayThat way, we tell it like it is instead of giving anti-gay bullies some semi-legit-sounding label for them to hide behind.

The folks we call “illegal aliens” are our neighbors.

(8). Illegal Aliens: It’s easy to support harsh laws against people, when we refer to them by a scary and distant term like “illegal aliens.” It’s way harder to act against our neighbors, friends, the families of our children’s classmates, or the nice lady who sells those plump, fragrant tamales on the corner. Plus … are they really “illegal?” If Big Business … Ooops … I mean “Unelected Government” … didn’t want them here — for their easily-exploited, low-cost, skilled labor — they’d be gone. And, yes, our neighbors from south of the border do have valued and specialized skills. But Big Agribusiness doesn’t want to pay them fairly for those skills. That’s why “illegal aliens” is one of the phrases progressives need to ditch right now. Instead, we can try: Undocumented Residents. Why not? Plus, we might as well. They’re having more kids than Anglos are, and many of these kids are legal citizens who are born on US soil. It doesn’t make sense for some family members to be legal and some not. Plus, making more immigrants legal could help the US avoid the aging crisis that’s hitting Western Europe and Japan.

They’re not “pro-life,” they’re “anti-choice.”

(9). Pro-Life: Ugh. These people are NOT “pro-life.” Once a child takes its first breath, these right-wing “pro-lifers” couldn’t care less about the quality of life for the child or mother. Let’s call them by their true name for once. Because “pro-life” is definitely one of those phrases progressives need to ditch. Progressives should call these people: Anti-Choice. Because, that’s what they really are about. They don’t care about “life.” They only seek to deny choices to women. Not just the choice of whether or not to have a child, but whether a woman can — like a man — embrace her full sexuality without having to worry about pregnancy, and whether she can make related choices about her body, her career, and when to have children, as men always have.

“Right-to-work” really means “right to work for less.”

(10). Right-To-Work: Who came up with the phrase “right-to-work” ANYway? It’s total B.S. and doesn’t give you the right to do anything, unless you want to reject unions and earn less money than you would in a pro-union shop. In “right-to-work” states, non-union workers in union shops can decline paying union dues. Which sounds fair, but is not, because union shops pay better wages to their employees, and hence should receive from workers who receive these benefits “Right-to-work” is one of those phrases progressives need to ditch in favor of something that tells the truth. Instead, progressives should try: Anti-Union: It’s far more accurate, and — as unions increasingly gain favor — will make conservatives look bad. Because “right-to-work” really does mean: Right to choose amongst sucky wages and benefits packages.  Several readers have also suggested: Right-To-Fire (without just cause), and Right-To-Work-For-Less.

“The Environment?” Who cares about “the environment?”

(11). The Environment: When people talk about “the environment,” they often sound annoyingly self-righteous, like they’re talking down to people with iffy hygiene practices. Alas, you can’t count on people to make environmentally friendly choices — especially when people are struggling financially and these choices may cost more. So count “the environment” among the many phrases progressives need to ditch, or at least use less often. We need to use something that sounds less abstract. Instead, we progressives can try: Shared Resources. Or even just plain old Nature or Clean Air and Water. That makes way more sense. We may not care about some  factory dumping crap into the ocean, but we dang-well care about our neighbors up the river not keeping up on their septic tank.

The GOP makes “welfare” sound like a bad thing, but we can try “social safety net.”

(12). Welfare: When conservatives talk about “welfare,” they make it sound like this pit that lazy, undeserving people wallow in forever, rather than a source of help that’s there when we need it – and that we all pay for through our taxes. The founding fathers put promoting “the general welfare” in the preamble to our Constitution, because they believed that we have a civic obligation towards the shared well-being of our citizens. But the GOP has given the word a bad name. That’s why “welfare” is one of the phrases progressives need to ditch. Instead, we should try: Social Safety Net: This resonates better, because it conjures an image of something that catches us when we fall, but that we can easily bounce out of. Most people understand that we all need help at one time or another. When friends and family can’t step in, that’s when our social safety net comes in. And if we continue to grow the middle class — instead of cutting taxes for the rich and allowing companies to pay sub-living wages — perhaps more of us will be able to bounce out of the social safety net again.

# 13 on the list of phrases progressives need to ditch. “The Homeless.”

(13). The Homeless: This term is downright dehumanizing, and that’s why it’s yet another one of those phrases progressives need to ditch. It makes it easy for us to dismiss our fellow human beings as faceless losers or crazy drug addicts, even though “homeless” people come from all walks of life. When we talk about helping “the homeless,” people’s eyes glaze over with “compassion fatigue” — a term that was coined back in the 1980’s when the “homeless problem” got out of control so people wouldn’t have to feel bad about it. We’ve come to see “the homeless” as some hopeless problem that cannot ever be solved. But solving “the homeless” problem would be super-easy if we simply chose to ensure that all these people had a place to live. Instead, let’s try: Unhoused: The term “unhoused” far better describes the state of people we now call “the homeless.” It’s also the first step in solving the “homeless” problem, because it recognizes housed as the default. We liberals all know that letting our friends, family, neighbors, and fellow citizens go without basic necessities like housing, food, clothing, and healthcare is flat-out unacceptable. And when people try to convince us that the plight of the unhoused can’t be solved, keep this in mind: This is what the GOP want us to think. Homelessness wasn’t even much of a problem in the US until 1985 — one year after Ronald Reagan became president. Under Reagan’s leadership, we emptied out the mental hospitals, cut funding for social programs, and slowly destroyed the middle class. Now, even working people often wind up homeless … um … unhoused.

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  • Chuck Finster

    I think the term “Homophobic” adequately describes the situation of most “homophobes”… it’s not that they literally fear gay people, they fear what the world would be like when being gay is acknowledged as being okay, which is a completely irrational fear… which is why “phobia” is associated with it.

  • How about not using labels like “Liberal”, “Conservative”, “Progressive”, “Moderate”, etc.? All these labels do is reinforce divides and divisiveness and have us habitually pick a side and argue how right we are and reinforce a culture where we habitually trying to make somebody wrong at the cost of our own happiness and peace of mind. What label do we all share? What do we all have in common? What do we all want? What do we all fear? What would bring us together? Labels will never put us on a path or in a conversation toward solving anything.

  • Since the 1970s, when I started working in Nevada, I’ve called it the Right-To-Get-Screwed state, FYI.

  • Ever and Anon

    This is a pretty good example of regaining control of the framing of political and social discussion. Cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, has a large body of work in this area. Moral Politics, 1996, spells out the prevalence of metaphor in our thinking and language. Don’t Think of an Elephant, 2004, encapsulates the essential lessons for progressive apologists.

  • According to Orwell in 1984, our old political vocabulary is deceptive, if not outdated, but we’re still stuck at the drawing board because we still don’t have the framework to relate our vague hopes of human equality & freedom to the actual distribution of power in the world.

    After all, there’s no such thing as a free and autonomous self, which entails that there’s no common human nature buried deep within, except how we have been socialized.

    No matter how good or progressive our intentions are, and how mindful we’re to avoid a totalitarian future, the same intellectuals we rely on may be the same ones who imposes a dystopia. None of us can truly imagine the right way to get from where we’re now at to a future where we’re all free and equal.

  • It’s not so much “PC” as it words of power. For example- ‘right to work’ implies that folks who want to work, cannot due to some mysterious restrictions.
    Anti-union, is much more descriptive. And illustrates the reality of the ‘rtw’ legislation.

    The same with ‘pro-life’, they’re not, demonstrably they’re not ‘pro’-life. They’re anti-choice for women. Why else the dust up over paying for contraception?

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