Acton Institute Powerblog

Tyranny, by any other name

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Not only does tyranny like to hide behind an unintelligible mass of bureaucratic phrases, but it disguises itself with pleasing and pleasant words. […]

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Many of us have noticed a trend toward the political misuse of words, both in legacy media and on social media. This isn’t a modern trend.

In the 6th century B.C., the prophet Jeremiah denounced this same practice among his kinsmen, vividly portraying their deceptive verbal gymnastics as bending the tongue like a bow. They were a society that twisted their speech to fit wicked pursuits. “Everyone deceives his neighbor,” Jeremiah cried, “and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies” (9:5).

In 1814, a Virginian farmer by the name of John Taylor of Caroline began to notice this tendency intensifying in the halls of Congress and beyond. A true localist at heart, Taylor identified so strongly with his home in Caroline County, Virginia, that the name of his county has been widely affixed to his own. Though he served his nation as a colonel, senator, and farmer, Taylor’s true genius lay in political philosophy, where he became known as the intellectual engine behind Jeffersonian Republicanism.

In his classic book Tyranny Unmasked, published in 1814, Taylor describes the same misrepresentation of words that Jeremiah once decried and specifically identifies it with the onset of tyranny. In his day, he specifically called out fiscal terms: “declamation represents frugality as niggardly and base; and flattery calls extravagance, liberal and exalted.” The definitions of terms were being twisted in political speech to push an agenda.

“We cannot condescend,” Taylor writes elsewhere, “to enter the lists with the wicked artifice of destroying nations by a fraudulent use of words and phrases…because a nation, capable of being subdued by these feeble instruments, is incapable of liberty, as a man is of long life, who can be persuaded to hold out his throat to the knife of an assassin, lest he should cut it himself.”

Just as policemen protect our towns, each American is thus tasked with patrolling our nation with vigilance, keeping watch against threats to usurp constitutional liberty and the rule of law. In the above quotation, Taylor contrasts this civic ideal with a story of a different and dangerous man – one so timid, so obliging that he would rather make a murderer’s job easy than confront the evil standing before him. Far from a noble self-sacrifice, such an act betrays both his own duty and the lives of the innocent who he is charged to protect. It is a stark metaphor for a seemingly simple act: The acceptance of false definitions and meek acquiescence to terminological perversion.

Over a century after John Taylor of Caroline, George Orwell cautioned his audience about this same threat of dishonest words. “The person who uses them,” he specifically warns, “has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.” This deception is designed to be hard to identify. But if unrecognized and unchallenged, the integrity of discourse takes another blow.

Say you pass the first test, refusing to yield to an intentional twisting of words. Well done. Yet a second trap awaits: the disguising of tyrannical ideas behind a host of beautiful sounds. “The hooks of fraud and tyranny,” Taylor booms, “are universally baited with melodious words. Fine words are used to decoy, and ugly words to affright.”

Taylor is encouraging us to keep an eye out for verbal rose-colored smokescreens that are rooted in deceit. Not only does tyranny like to hide behind an unintelligible mass of bureaucratic phrases, but it disguises itself with pleasing and pleasant words. For instance, how could someone dare to attack a phrase such as “bold, ambitious, transformational, economy-wide legislation,” or the passage of a law that is called “an economic imperative, a moral obligation?”

Strip the fluff and sugar away, and you might find that a friendly smile hides grim despotism. Tyranny often conceals itself behind a verbal mask – it is our duty to peek behind the words to discern the actions, genial though they may be.

Why have Americans been susceptible to these control tactics since the time of John Taylor?  Are we merely naïve creatures that are so easily duped by a pretty turn of phrase? I might be over-confident, but I think we deserve more credit than that. Taylor pinpoints over-abundant generosity as the problem, a friendly and natural faith in authority that can be used against us. Uncritical trust in the truthfulness of leaders – whether they be professors, journalists, or politicians – is no civic duty, but a shirking of responsibility. In the name of trust, we offer up our necks to be sliced by a deceptive legislative saber.

Our challenge, then, is to build our own capacity for analytical political awareness. When you discuss politics with a friend (or an enemy), speak slowly and prudently. When you use a consequential term – the phrases “human right,” “equality,” and “moral responsibility” come to mind – are your words philosophically and etymologically correct, or have you inserted your own definition? Not all such errors are of Taylor’s fraudulent variety, yet even unconscious mistakes carry sinister ramifications. Hold yourself to a high standard in your speech. Hold your leaders to an even higher one.

Finally, approach any political message with a healthy measure of skepticism. Realize that the more wordy and complicated a speech, bill, or lecture is, the more dangerous it may be. Even roadkill may taste fine if it is deep-fried and coated in spices, so beware the heart-warming platitudes, folksy yet ambiguous metaphors, and broad moral appeals that may mask a deceptive message.

We are in an age of political discourse that seeks to trip, ensnare, and demolish rather than listen and debate. Thus, understanding the verbal tactics of tyranny is crucial to avoiding personal demolition. Widespread recognition of them will serve to check the masked and creeping onslaught of tyranny itself.

Jeremy Ward

Jeremy Ward is a member of the Acton Institute’s 2021 Emerging Leaders class. He is a recent graduate of the University of South Carolina Honors College, where he majored in Economics. Upon graduation, he was given the top economics award for his class by the Darla Moore School of Business. A native of Lowrys, South Carolina, Jeremy’s passions in life are playing the banjo, farming, and reading Joseph Schumpeter.