Language and the way people use it, written and spoken, fascinates me. I suppose that might be obvious, since I’m a writer. However, as a cop, being able to communicate efficiently and with accuracy helped me avoid lots of problems in court and on the streets, an undertaking that was much more perilous than writing an article. The proper use of language expands understanding between people. But what troubles me is the political left’s misuse and abuse of language.
For example, when I was a kid, a bum was a bum. In fact, even the bums knew they were bums. By the time I started as a cop, the left had promoted bums to “transients.” Dispatch would send me to remove a transient from a storefront or to investigate a transient camp where people who police suspected of burglarizing nearby homes were staying, illegally of course.
By the time I was finished being a cop, miraculously, the left had canonized the bums-turned-transients into “homeless” saints. While the word bum is admittedly disparaging, it is also admittedly accurate. While the word transient is not necessarily disparaging, it is at least also fairly accurate. That was not good enough for the PC patrol at city hall. What was the problem? There is no “victimhood” in being a bum or transient. There is victimhood in being homeless.
The leftist politicians bestowed victimhood on these open-air urban denizens because that’s what was necessary before Democrats could cajole their votes. Seattle/King County is infamous for extracting votes from the so-called homeless. First change bum to transient, then change transient to homeless (official leftist victim status), establish government programs to “help” them, provide them with a “permanent” address, then collect their votes on election day.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not saying Americans who have no permanent address should not be able to vote. If they are American citizens, they have an indisputable right to vote. In fact, I think localities should create policies that circumvent the address issue. But, you can be sure, after the Democrats pick all of our pockets for their pet social programs, in this case the ones that help the so-called homeless, which political party do you think most of these folks will vote for?
The terms bum and transient are descriptive of a state of anti-social existence that most of these people exist in (absent those suffering mental illness). Bums or transients have no jobs, no permanent addresses, and they exist by asking for handouts — bumming food and money. They move from location to location, often due to drug and alcohol addiction, criminality, or other irresponsible behavior. The term homeless in the way it is normally used, on the other hand, describes a legitimate, involuntary lack of a necessity for responsible people. So, by referring to irresponsible people as homeless as a primary (and often exclusive) descriptor, we damage the language by harming its accuracy, thus diluting the genuine social concern for the truly homeless.
Is it right to extend the word homeless to people whose actions are largely responsible for their plight? Doesn’t it dilute the term for those who are truly homeless? People who’ve lost their jobs (laid off, not fired), people who’ve had devastating medical expenses, victims of domestic violence — innocent sufferers of life’s misfortunes.
President John F. Kennedy, on the occasion of conferring upon Winston Churchill honorary U.S. citizenship, quoted Edward R. Murrow, “He [Churchill] mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” When used by folks like Winston Churchill, language can be an effective implement of truth. When used by political leftists, language is often weaponized and sent to war against the truth, rather than mobilized for good.
According to Jem Berkes in Language as the “Ultimate Weapon” in Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell was also very interested in how the English language was used politically. In the novel, much of Orwell’s description is a frightening mirror reflecting how leftist politicians and the media today are manipulating language to bully political adversaries.
According to Berkes, Orwell realized that politicians use language to mask the truth and mislead the public. He states that while most languages tend to expand the lexicon, the “Newspeak” in Orwell’s novel sought to reduce how people were allowed to use language to describe things. The language had to align with governmental commands, or else.
You’ve seen this with issues such as the Affordable Health Care Act (AHCA), or Obamacare, which, as most of us know all too well, is anything but affordable. Almost nothing the leftist government told us about this act was true. Again, the politics of, you’ll thank us one day, ruled. Uh, wanna bet?
My wife and I lost the “affordable” health care plan we’d gotten after we retired, dropped within a year by our provider because they could no longer offer that plan (in other words, make money). Thank you, Obamacare. Still, our payments, even with that plan, had been going for coverage that we could never use anyway because of the horrendous deductibles — oh, unless my wife or I got pregnant or needed birth control. The AHCA was so spot-on and in-line with the type of government Orwell was trying to convey in his novel, it makes you shudder to think any American federal administration would inflict this law on a free people.
The left offers many other manipulations to language to push their own agenda. One is the morphing of illegal alien (no victimhood) into undocumented immigrant (yes victimhood) — and, more recently, dropping undocumented and conflating it by simply saying immigrant. They expect us to believe legal and illegal mean the same thing instead of the precise opposite.
According to the left, if you say, “I’m against illegal immigration,” they put it through their nifty Leftist Lexicon Converter and it comes out as, “I’m against immigration.” It doesn’t matter at all what you actually said. The left doesn’t want you to use the words you want to use. The left will not allow you to have and express your thoughts. In fact, you’d think it was your thoughts and words that are illegal instead of the status of a foreigner who isn’t authorized to be in our country.
“Language…used in a maliciously political way.”
Language has one primary function: to communicate, and further, to communicate clearly. But what happens when one political faction won’t allow clear, honest communication on a subject because it doesn’t support their narrative? What happens when all the propaganda the left pushes with its media allies converts one’s legitimate political objections into what the left has decreed is hate speech? How can you use language to communicate when they endeavour to outlaw the way you use legitimate language?
If I refer to a perfectly healthy guy or gal sitting on the curb of a busy intersection, wearing filthy clothes, holding a cardboard sign, begging for change that will most likely be used to buy the next 40 oz. beer, as a bum, I’m using the language to convey information accurately. You can make up your own mind about how you feel about that person’s activities. But when the left transforms a vagrant into society’s victim, instead of seeing a human being who should be responsible for themself, they’re abusing language to not only exploit the street person but also to signal their virtue and belittle you.
I didn’t think transient was as accurate a description as bum, but the compromise didn’t really bother me. Although some transients do torture the definition by planting themselves in the same spots sometimes for days, weeks, months, and even years. Transient is less accurate, okay, but still somewhat descriptive of the person’s situation. But, homeless?
Now, while bums, transients, vagrants, wastrels — whatever — are factually homeless, they have not suffered some temporary life misfortune that landed them there. Their not having a permanent address or a job is nearly always a result of irresponsible behavior. As they say, reaping what they’ve sown.
I believe that to think of these folks as victims pays them little respect as nature’s or God’s creatures who are supposed to be responsible for themselves. Feeling sorry for someone whose own actions are responsible for a negative outcome helps no one. You are not showing true empathy by throwing another quarter into a cup. That only prolongs their misery and delays a remedy.
I would never refer to a mother with two kids who is truly homeless due to escaping real domestic abuse as a bum. Bum is not descriptive of her, it’s not accurate, and it doesn’t fit the situation. But, she is literally without a home — homeless. She had no choice and her homelessness is not likely to be permanent. Even transient, as leftists apply it, wouldn’t accurately describe this woman.
Though she may have to make use of temporary shelters for a time, she has done nothing to create or exacerbate her homelessness. This woman and her kids are truly homeless — they lost their home through no fault of their own. People who’ve lost their homes to fire, lost a job, or had a serious illness are similarly regarded as homeless as it used to be and should still be defined.
Society has always understood homelessness as involuntary, unintended, and temporary. But the left wasn’t having any of that. Who cares if misusing the word mitigates the true circumstances of real homelessness, actual affordable health care, or legal immigration? To the political left, it doesn’t matter. They take aim at their ends, get there any way they can, and then justify their means. And if the means are changing how people are allowed to use language to express their opinions of homelessness, affordability, and immigration, then so be it.
Berkes concluded his comments on Orwell and his observations of political language by citing Phillip Rahv (The Unfuture of Utopia in Nineteen Eighty-Four: Text, Sources, Criticism), “While language in the traditional sense can expand horizons and improve our understanding of the world, Orwell’s novel demonstrates that language, when used in a maliciously political way, can just as easily become ‘a plot against human consciousness.’”
“Language…used in a maliciously political way.” Sound familiar?