Principles of duckspeak

As political vocabulary shrinks, nuance goes with it

By Greg Gabrellas

Linguists at the University of Oceania have discovered a startling phenomenon: The political vocabulary of the English language is shrinking. Dr. Emmanuel Goldstein, a distinguished service professor and widely respected researcher in his field, reports that the range of words available for political use has diminished at a rate of 13 percent per year. Although the words occasionally remain in use, the concepts to which they refer are disappearing at a remarkable rate. As part of this process, the remaining words rapidly lose their context and nuance. Political speech becomes more and more automatic, with fewer and fewer political differences able to be indexed by vocabulary. Dr. Goldstein calls this new kind of talk “duckspeak.”

To understand duckspeak, Dr. Goldstein offers the example of gun control in American politics. Some time in the coming months, the Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of the City of Chicago’s handgun ban in McDonald v. Chicago. The case hinges on whether the right to bear arms, as given in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, applies to the states and local governments. Politically, liberals are said to support gun control whereas conservatives are said to oppose it.

“This automatic equation of liberalism with gun control here is duckspeak at its clearest,” Dr. Goldstein confirmed at a conference in March. For much of modern history, he explained, one’s political alignment depended on one’s interests and conception of freedom. Conservatives held that liberty would be best preserved by adherence to tradition and moderate, republican rule; conscious political action in any one direction would result in unintended and bloody consequences. Liberals disagreed: They held that it was necessary to politically ensure that individuals were free to choose and pursue their own ends; monarchies must be overthrown, censorship fought, segregation destroyed, and workers allowed to form unions and pass reforms. For the Left, this was not enough to free humanity. Emancipation, they held, could only come through the conscious overcoming of capitalism. Dr. Goldstein paused and then reminded himself that both the concepts of capitalism and the Left have gone extinct.

If all of this sounds strange to us, Dr. Goldstein relates in his latest paper, “It’s because sometime around 1972, for various reasons, the concept of freedom disappeared from politics. Went extinct. Like the dodo, it only exists as a stuffed carcass in museums and laboratories.” Now, cutting-edge research performed by Dr. Goldstein’s lab technicians reveals that “conservative” simply denotes a disappointed supporter of the Republican Party, “liberal” a disappointed supporter of the Democratic Party, and “leftist” a very disappointed supporter of the Democratic Party.

This semantic realignment helps us understand the duckspeak connection of liberalism and gun control, Dr. Goldstein explains. In an attempt to win the urban vote in the 1990s, the Democratic Party made a conscious decision to appear on the side of “law and order”: local Party officials called for an increase in funding for the police, and a tough ban on handguns. So-called liberals, i.e. “supporters of the Democratic Party,” rationalized gun control as part of a concern for the well-being of the cities. If we remove guns, we can make the inner cities safe and put an end to violence—or so the logic goes. Instead of seeking a solution for the actual misery of inner cities—unemployment, chronic underemployment, major deficits in health care and education—liberals instinctively parroted the rhetoric of the Democratic Party and demanded more and more social control. Such illiberal liberalism, Dr. Goldstein suggests, is highly symptomatic of contemporary duckspeak.

When asked if the shrinking political vocabulary could be reversed, Dr. Goldstein shrugs: “Whole careers, institutions, and campaigns have been built on duckspeak. Just look at the universities!” He adds that if there is hope for this, it will come from looking back in time to rekindle the political imagination of the next generation. “Liberalism,” he wistfully intones, “can only have a future if it understands its past.” Only by going backward, he quips, could we ever move forward.

— Greg Gabrellas is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in the social sciences.