THE BLOG
09/16/2005 04:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Should We Deep-Six the Term “Liberal” or Own Up to It?

I’ve spent a career studying how we use language to influence. I used to put the words “smoogle” and “comcom” on the board in my classes. I’d then ask students to tell me if they’d ever seen a smoogle or comcom. No one had. Then I’d describe a smoogle as a small, white, nocturnal creature with enough comcom covering its body to make a woman’s sweater. What is a smoogle? I’d ask. The answers ranged from rat to rabbit. None were accurate, because there are no smoogles (at least to my knowledge). But the exercise demonstrated that words are imbued with meanings. As we all know but sometimes need to be reminded, meanings are not in the words, but in the way people use them. If I attach the terms “absent” and “mother” I get the derogatory term “absent mother.” Now, she may just be down the street and a babysitter may be watching her child, but apply that term and she’ll have a lot of explaining to do.

So where am I going with this? The term “liberal” is often coupled it with such adjectives as “raving,” bleeding heart,” “free-spending, “knee-jerk, and “irresponsible, thereby making “liberal” negative by association. The term “liberal” has become almost as negative as “feminism.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that being a “feminist” is bad. Au contraire. I am saying that it has become a term from which the majority of women flee. “I don’t want you to think I’m a feminist, but…” is how many women apologize for assertive statements. “Feminazi” became a regularly used term to describe women who expressed opinions when men would just as soon they hadn’t. In time, just staying away from the term “feminist” became a survival technique for women, especially those who worked in predominantly male fields.

Back now to “liberal.” When liberals run from the term, they assist in making it a derogatory description. Liberal and Conservative are segments of a political continuum constructed by us. Yes, we did it. Without our input, the terms “conservative” and “liberal” are no different than smoogles and comcom. We created these categories and gradually convinced ourselves that they’re mutually exclusive – can’t be one and the other. Yet, it is possible to be liberal on some issues and conservative on others or to be more liberal than conservative and vice versa. We now have “Moderates” as well. They are in the middle somewhere protected from most attacks, except perhaps those indicating that they can’t make up their minds or that they’re really liberals who won’t admit it.

It’s time to decide whether to deep six the term “liberal” or to own up to it. By fleeing from it, liberals give their detractors the upper hand. They get to say things like, “So, you’re a liberal,” or “What do you expect from a liberal?” They know that these jabs will elicit extensive apologizing or rationalizing. This makes liberals predictable, and as I’ve written many times in my books on negotiation, being predictable is the kiss of death.

Instead of running from “liberal, let’s define it. Get it over with and then people can decide whether they want to be in that group or not, incline toward it or not, visit it or not. But if it’s too late, and the term has become a garbage dump for all that is clearly an anathema to America’s deepest values, then I suggest liberals find another name. If “liberal is retained, it’s time to start affiliating it with positive terms like “conscientious,” “religious,” business-minded,” “patriotic,” and “thoughtful.” One of my professors was upset with my penchant for learning from people in various academic camps. “You’re an eclectic,” he said derogatorily. I thought about it, then told him, ‘Yes, but I’m a rigorous eclectic.” That stopped him in his tracks, as those two words just weren’t used together. How about a rigorous liberal? I think I’ll give it a try.

It’s times like the ones we’re living in now that call for some personal courage in our self-labeling and some angst when people use political labels to disparage or shut someone up. If someone won’t talk to you because you’re a liberal, they’re no debater anyway. Just discuss the weather with them -- carefully. I do think “liberals” have gotten the short end of the stick because of what they have allowed others to do to the term. I say, “allow” because each of us is at least 75% responsible for the way people treat us. We have choices, and one is to not sit back and let someone else decide how you should be labeled and what the label means.