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Robin Lakoff Headshot

'Life' and 'Death'

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You can argue with the ways Republican conservatives use language: prevarication, exaggeration, equivocation, and yes, indeed, one may invoke the much shorter "l"-word. But one thing has become clearer than ever in the light of the health care debate:

Republicans have gotten the trademark on the two most potent words at our disposal: "life" and "death." That means, among other things, that they are the ones who decide what those words mean: who can use them, about what, in what context. To have gained absolute rights to the most powerful words (and ideas) in the language is truly to have power - at least if you believe that language has power (and I am professionally as well as personally committed to that notion).

They gained their stranglehold on "life" in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade. Anti-choice advocates (I am tempted to call them by their rightful name, "misogynists," but will hold back for now) grabbed the word and ran with it. By their control over "life" in this discursive context, they necessarily framed their opposition as dealers of death, making it very difficult to offer alternative perspectives: that "life" is not an all-or-nothing construct, but comes about and strengthens over nine months' gestation; that no one can claim truthfully that there is a moment when "life" begins; that it is a dangerous and scientifically dubious proposition to privilege "human" life as sacrosanct even when its existence is ambiguous, as opposed to other sentient "life," which we can dispose of at will; that pre-birth "life" is more valuable than post-birth "life," which we have no moral compunction to support or preserve; and much more. I am not saying here that the above propositions are unquestionably correct, only that they seem to me to be reasonable arguments, which have been rendered unusable by the anti-reproductive rights side's ownership of "life," and therefore (if you believe the map is the territory), life.

More recently they have laid claim to "death" as well. Everyone remembers Frank Luntz's masterstroke of substituting "death tax" for "estate tax" a decade ago. But the conservatives' current flirtation with "death panels" demonstrates the lengths a desperate group will go to win hearts and minds (hearts anyway) by any means possible. It's scary how it has worked, apparently effectively: you start with a suggestion (not even a final proposal) that doctors be compensated for time talking to people nearing death about end-of-life issues. This is not ambiguous in any way, nor does it seem to be frightening in any way. The original proposal did not create "panels," , nor would the doctors who participated have had the power to dictate who would live and who would die. The discussions proposed were just that and no more: suggestions rather than determinations. But the terrifying "d" word was invoked, and conservative critique began and ended by flinging it around.

From discussion about death to deciding whether someone should die to totalitarian governments of the past which did, horrifically, send innocent people to their death, to pictures of the President with a certain mustache and cries of "Hitler!" by people who, I suspect, either don't really know who "Hitler" was or what, exactly, he did, and perhaps wouldn't have been all that averse to him or it -- that's a monstrous distortion of any logical thought process, made possible and successful largely because the emotional penumbra of the word "death" overrides the possibility, for all too many of us, of clear rationality.

So once again passion substitutes for reason and the democratic process is derailed. By their tactics (which appear to be part of a broader strategy) opponents of a health care program show themselves to be enemies of democracy, since true democracy requires language that opens the mind to new possibilities, rather than shutting it off.

If conservatives really believe that theirs is the intellectually and morally superior position, they should find it easy to present rational, rather than emotional, perspectives on the most important issues we face as a society. To depend on the persuasive power of raw emotion is either lazy, or an admission of incompetence. If conservatives will not engage in meaningful give and take, the voters should recognize their emotional suasion as a show of contempt, and punish them at the ballot box.

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