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When Political Slogans Become Sacred

Activists should think of language as a means to an end.

Key points

  • Sacralizing rhetoric should not supplant actual policy goals.
  • Progressive activists are one group that can benefit from more emotional intelligence.
  • Meeting people where they are includes listening to a diversity of minority voices.
Image by Mike Von via Unsplash
George Floyd Protest, downtown Los Angeles, CA, USA
Source: Image by Mike Von via Unsplash

In my recent posts, we discussed the topic of moral re-framing. I made the case for why it’s important to “meet people where they are” on pressing issues like vaccine hesitancy. I also suggested that liberals can learn from social psychology to empower their movement for climate change mitigation, civil/legal rights for minorities, housing policies, and more. But there is some aversion to this line of strategic thinking, mostly from “woke” progressive activists, and their dogmatism may be thwarting progressives' shared goals.

For example, recent research on this topic has shown that from a political strategy perspective, it might be better in some cases to discuss issues in race-neutral terms. Some studies show that across the political spectrum (but especially among conservative Republicans), people are more likely to support progressive policies such as raising the minimum wage or the Green New Deal when they are framed in economic terms, rather than racial justice terms. But this argument has angered some activists who insist on a race-conscious framing. In response to this debate, my question is, why should this matter to people at all? Why are the exact words we use to describe policies so important, and potentially so toxic?

In modern times, political alliances have become pseudo-religious tribes for many. The specific language we use to describe political movements has become sanctified in its own right and at some points actually supersedes policy objectives. One reason that activists may be reluctant to strategically re-frame their rhetoric (i.e., talking more about “loyalty” or “innovation” and less about “justice”) is that the words themselves have become symbolically sacred, like hymns or mantras. Some social psychologists, such as Jon Haidt, describe politics as a form of religion, and that humans tend to sacralize political leaders and ideas in a way that’s similar to sacralizing holy books or alters.

One advantage for members of any group is that by using a shared sacred language, they can signal to others that they are part of the same tribe. Psychologists call this “paralanguage,” and it functions like a secret handshake. The folks who use specific terms (e.g., “Latinx”) show that they are allies for the same cause. Some research shows that when we synchronize our words and actions, this can lead to a sense of affinity and cooperation. That is, we’re better equipped to accomplish shared goals if we can synchronize our minds.

But there are drawbacks as well. Sacralizing language makes it incredibly difficult to have meaningful discussions with others who may not share the same worldviews—or in the case of modern progressivism, don’t use the same “wokespeak.” Even those who might be inclined to agree about specific issues may feel alienated or ostracized as they hear terms that don’t resonate with them. When the stakes are high and emotional polarization weighs on us, losing allies can be particularly problematic.

When slogans become sacred in their own right, it's possible to lose sight of what’s really important in all of this—the policy goals that we think can help shape our society for the better. In this sense, our policy objectives are supplanted, and using the correct language becomes an end unto itself. This is where we can see a ton of infighting not just between liberals and conservatives, but between liberals and other liberals and between conservatives and other conservatives.

The core differences between mainstream/classical liberals compared to far-left progressive activists are not political. They are psychological. Just like right-wing extremists, those on the far left may display a lack of curiosity, rigidity of thought, closed-minded dogmatism, and a pseudo-religious conviction of moral superiority. These features, in my view, are what make extremist progressives problematic, not their desire for civil rights or a stronger welfare state. Those are noble goals in the eyes of many. But problems can occur when extreme partisans focus more energy into the holiness of their symbols.

It seems that many activists are not content to strive for substantive policy changes, but doggedly insist that we must be speaking about issues with the correct phraseology, especially when it comes to issues involving identity groups and prejudice. While I believe we should be focusing on ending the war on drugs, stopping climate change, and providing comprehensive healthcare as means to dismantle racism, far too much time and energy are spent policing taboo words or correcting terminology.

In San Francisco, a highly liberal part of the country, an effort to bring free internet access to poor communities was rejected by the city government. But the city school board did vote to re-name dozens of their schools, in part based on misinformation about historical figures like Paul Revere. For many liberal-identifying people, it’s tough to justify such a disproportionate focus on words and symbols over concrete solutions that would reduce racial barriers. Language should be seen as a means to an end, not the end itself. When words become symbolically sacred in their own right, then they become a distraction from the more important goals for the health of our society.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash
Extinction Rebellion September 2020 Protests, London
Source: Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Elsewhere, white liberals are keen to enforce changes to language and cultural symbols that they deem offensive, even when they are generally viewed as inoffensive (or even positively!) by people of color. When researchers study ostensibly problematic statements (“America is a melting pot”) or microaggressions (“Where are you from?”), they find that white participants are significantly more upset than Black or Hispanic participants. People of color also tend to respond more positively to statements condemning illegal immigration compared to whites. Despite concerns about negative racial stereotypes in cartoons, Speedy Gonzales remains popular among Latin Americans. Liberals promote the term “Latinx” even though the vast majority of Hispanic Americans would not use it to describe themselves. The term has thus been criticized as merely a way to pander to progressive whites.

While some liberals may not care very much about alienating white Republicans with esoteric rhetoric, it may be strange to see liberals blithely dismissing the diverse viewpoints from people of color, many of whom do not resonate with their phraseology. Liberal activist communication may result in disaffected Americans of color, some of whom are shifting away from the Democratic party. You would think that, as Vox writer Matt Yglesias put it, “Trump’s gains with Hispanic voters [in 2020] should prompt some progressive rethinking,” but I see little evidence of this.

I often hear liberals clamoring for each other to listen more to Black voices as they can educate them about issues of ethics and justice. This is a great idea—but in my view, it means paying more attention to a diversity of Black voices, including those that challenge liberal orthodoxies, such as the linguist John McWhorter, who is pushing back against the shifting meaning of terms like “white supremacy.” Other notable voices include the social commentator Coleman Hughes, who suggests that we strive for racial colorblindness, along with Chloé Valdary, an entrepreneur whose Theory of Enchantment provides anti-racism education based in science rather than ideology, and prognosticator/sociologist Musa al-Gharbi, who was an early predictor that Donald Trump could win the U.S. presidency in 2016 and now argues that the political heterogeneity of Black Americans must be taken more seriously.

In the end, I argue that progressives should follow their own advice and pay more attention to the heterodox views of racial and ethnic minorities. This may require that they let go of sacred words and symbols in the progressive movement in favor of more diverse coalitional strategies and more emotional intelligence.


English, M., & Kalla, J. (2021, April 23). Racial Equality Frames and Public Policy Support: Survey Experimental Evidence.

Haidt, Jonathan. The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage, 2012. APA

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