Word games and propaganda campaigns: The right is weaponizing language against us

OPINION: It is more than a little disturbing to observe how those in power are twisting language and meaning to fit their political agendas.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

In the 1978 classic The Wiz (aka The “Black” Wizard of Oz), there is a sequence when Dorothy, Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow arrive in Emerald City that features lots of glamorous dancers twirling around and singing the praises of the color green. The color has been chosen by the “Wiz” himself, and it changes on his whim. Indeed, in that seven-minute sequence, we see him quickly change his mind and change the color from green to red to gold. Anyone caught wearing the other colors is bad, and only people wearing the current in-style color are good. 

Aside from being a fantastic musical number, it also reminds me of the current state of affairs with those on the right. 

You see, those on the right have been engaged in a game of wordplay that has them redefining words and phrases to fit their various propaganda campaigns. Three very loud examples that come to mind are the word “woke” and the phrases “critical race theory” and “quiet quitting.” Stick with me and I’ll explain to you what I mean. 

The bastardization of ‘woke’

Remember when being “woke” was considered a good thing? The word was originally used in the Black community as part of the phrase “stay woke,” which was meant to encourage Black people to be aware of what was going on around them politically and socially as it pertained to racism and white supremacy. It meant being socially conscious, and it evolved to extend toward white Americans who seemingly understood the assignment and were good allies. 

In the more recent past, the right has turned the word woke into a pejorative and used it to classify anyone with left-leaning ideologies and sympathies. They use the word to slam anyone who has thoughts and ideas that run counter to the GOP agenda. If you are pro-choice, you are “woke,” and that is a bad thing. The live-action version of The Little Mermaid casting a Black actress to play Ariel is “too woke” for some white people. The new Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones spinoff series including Black characters in their stories is a result of “woke” culture

It is all not-so-coded language to hide what is behind all of this: racism and white supremacy. 

You see, these people can’t just come right out and say “We are racist and we are against Black people being included in things,” because then everyone would be like “WHOA. Y’ALL ARE RACISTS.”

So instead, they turn the people doing the work into villains. Suddenly, you are in the wrong if you want to be inclusive. You are in the wrong if you speak out about racial injustice. If you are not upholding white supremacy, then you are too woke for your own good. At least, that’s how they want you to see it. 

This is what happens when language is bastardized. 

Critical race theory is not the boogeyman

Look at what they did to the phrase “critical race theory.” They took it and turned it into a horror monster that scares children, making white kids feel like they are the devil and responsible for all evil and making Black kids feel like they are inferior to everyone else. 

This is the narrative the right spun as they took what is a legitimate study of history, policy, economics and everything else in the United States and how racism and white supremacy may have helped shape some of the laws, rules and policies we follow to this day. 

On its face, critical race theory is not out to harm anyone; rather, it is a way of studying things so that equitable change can be made. 

But because the right is not in this for equity, change or equitable change, and because they don’t want to admit that this country is still operating under a lot of policies that were born out of the institution of slavery, they took that phrase, turned it inside out and redefined it to fit their own agenda and propaganda campaign. 

They used critical race theory as an umbrella phrase to demonize anything that might possibly make people aware (or “woke” if you will) of the fact that for as much as the United States of America wants to pretend to be so progressive and fair, it really is still a white man’s fantasy land where you have to be tight and white to get ahead without any barriers. 

Suddenly, teaching the accurate history of the United States—including discussing the institution of slavery, the civil rights movement and anything having to do with racism—was very wrong. It will make the white kids and their parents feel bad, and we don’t need that, so get that “critical race theory” out of here. 

And again, it bears repeating that none of what they labeled “critical race theory” was actually critical race theory, but a lie doesn’t care who tells it, and it will travel around the world a million times before the truth even puts its shoes on. 

And as we all know, whoever gets to tell their version of the story first is usually the one believed, right? At least that’s how it works in this country. 

There is no such thing as ‘quiet quitting’

One of the more egregious “Orwellian newspeak” (word to Erica Jong) campaigns that we have witnessed in recent history is the entire “quiet quitting” saga that is happening now in the media. 

Articles are coming out every day discussing this weird phenomenon called “quiet quitting.” 

What is quiet quitting, you ask? Basically, it’s the idea that workers are no longer going above and beyond their job descriptions at work. They aren’t staying late. They aren’t skipping lunch. They aren’t taking work home with them. They aren’t doing any more than what is required of them and what they are getting paid to do. 

Workers have decided to set boundaries and are no longer allowing themselves to be exploited by employers who would have them doing more than what they are paid for without giving them the extra money to do it. 

In this capitalist society, you know that is a problem for employers because they want to take advantage of workers as much as possible. You can’t have workers out here setting boundaries all willy-nilly! So what do you do?

You create a phrase like “quiet quitting,” which isn’t really about quitting at all because no one has quit their job. In fact, people are still doing their jobs; they just aren’t giving up extra for free. It’s important to note that the phrase “quiet quitting” is meant to demonize those who are setting those boundaries for themselves. 

Employers want others to view you negatively if you aren’t letting them exploit you. Ain’t that some ish? 

None of this would be so bad if the U.S. media were not largely complicit in helping these propaganda campaigns. 

When your media organization uses these phrases over and over again without explaining that they aren’t real and that the words and phrases are being misused, then they are part of the problem. Just like when we were in grammar school, repetition drills things into people’s heads. 

With the media repeating these phrases without any type of pushback, they are aiding the propaganda campaigns because the largely media illiterate audience is not going to take the time to sort out what’s real and what isn’t; they are depending on the media to do that for them. 

So if the Washington Post and the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times are repeating these phrases without any explanations and using them in the context that the right is using them, they are aiding the spread of misinformation, and that is bad for us all. 

Please be aware of language. Please be aware of how those in power use language to their benefit. 

Please remember that when all else fails, they will demonize the good so they can continue to spread their evil. 

Words have power, and words mean things. 

Let’s all do better in that regard. 


Monique Judge

Monique Judge is a storyteller, content creator and writer living in Los Angeles. She is a word nerd who is a fan of the Oxford comma, spends way too much time on Twitter, and has more graphic t-shirts than you. Follow her on Twitter @thejournalista or check her out at moniquejudge.com.

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