Language is human civilisation’s weapon of mass destruction. Employed cunningly, it can topple empires for no other reason than a mob decides to seize power. It is a phenomenon once studied in the chasms of university or scrolled beneath a news broadcast where some banana republic on the other side of the world has set itself on fire. How can sensible people fall into ruin overnight? Why do they burn their cities and machete their neighbours?
Threats to national security are often thought of as external. Australians sleep better knowing $38.7 billion is earmarked for our defence budget, but not a single cent or Canberra brain cell is spent on monitoring social discord. It is not enough for political leaders to glance at trending hashtags, they have to wade in and understand the muck. As the Romans preached, political unrest is best healed if spotted before the problem becomes obvious. When thousands rub up against each other during a global pandemic, the disaster is obvious. Words have become Molotov cocktails. Stalin’s zombie is walking the streets with a spray can. People are dead. A* revolution of cultural genocide is underway and no-one knows if it’ll end at book burning or civil war. So, how did we get from Social Media trolls to burning cities in fourteen days?
This is more than a rebellion made up of Marxist protégés, preying on a financially injured nation with a Masters in Revisionism. Core groups of extremists exist in every breath of history, but sometimes they manage to manipulate the wider public into objectively lunatic demands via language. There are two distinct tricks which debaters look out for and you have probably been a victim of the first. Dangerous movements often offer a binary ultimatum that provokes people into an automatic, emotional response.
‘You’re either Antifascist or you’re a fascist!’ or as Twitter users put it, ‘You’re Antifa or literally Hitler!’
It’s a demand in the heat of the moment, drenched in censure, that doesn’t give the person listening any chance to pick apart the facts. Impressionable kids and click-hungry celebrities answer, ‘Then I’m #Antifa!’ declaring themselves members of an organisation they know nothing about, and proceed to follow demands whose ends they are unaware of. This is how people are shamed into joining violent mobs. After a few sober minutes, most realise that the correct response to an Antifa zealot is a sharp lesson in history. ‘No, this isn’t 1930s Germany and my choices are not your Stalin-funded, Communist Party vanity project or Hitler. I choose the option you didn’t mention – peaceful democracy.’ Their layers of propaganda are so thin that this alone de-radicalises the smart ones.
This is not the only movement that engages in linguistic entrapment. Extinction Rebellion’s Climate Change rhetoric is much the same, if not more flamboyant. ‘You’re either with us or like, you’re totally causing the global apocalypse!’ No one wants to be responsible for the end of the world, but doomsday politics are less personal, and so not as successful. Indifference to an apocalypse isn’t quite as bad as ‘literal Hitler’ so in the end all you have are bored kids sticking themselves to the road.
The second sleight of hand is disguised within their name.
Before entering into any ideological debate, you must agree on the premise. Antifa, by definition, proclaims itself to be ‘anti-fascist’. Dig deeper and you find Antifa defines fascism as the natural end of capitalism. The terms are used interchangeably throughout historic and modern Antifa. By labelling capitalism as fascism they both deceive uneducated followers that capitalism is fascist and justify the destruction of Western democracy. Never-mind that Stalin killed more people than Hitler. Are they really anti-fascist? Maybe, but reasons matter. Antifa fought German fascism for power using fascist tactics. The last shreds of democracy were terrified of them, with Kurt Schumacher describing their parent party as ‘red-painted Nazis’.
This game has a flaw, which left Climate Change with an identity crisis. Originally named ‘Global Cooling’, the movement suffered a drop in popularity when none of us died in an ice age. ‘Global Warming’ worked for another decade until the Earth couldn’t decide what it was doing so everyone settled on ‘Climate Change’ to cover their bases. Concealed within the name is the same literary hack. ‘Climate Change’ takes for granted that the climate shouldn’t be changing and forces you to deny an indisputable fact to argue against the political organisation, instead of examining its claims. The problem with getting tricky with language is an experienced debater can snap it straight back and observe that "the only movement pretending that the climate shouldn’t change is Climate Change".
And so, it is with the deceitful naming of The People’s Republic of China, marauded over by a dictator and his cronies to the exclusion of ‘the people’ and their opinion. In print, democracies are fascist and dictators are democratic. This is how language creates a forgery of politics and recruits your children to violence. The antidote is straight forward. Never cede ground in the Culture Wars by falling for linguist cheat codes. Establish facts before retaliating with emotion. Relentlessly demand evidence to back up accusations and buy a second-hand history book before they’re all burned!