Politics is a theater of rhetoric. One common rhetorical tactic is to make use of a dysphemism. Doing this involves using a term or phrase with negative connotations in place of a neutral or positive term or phrase. The purpose of this is to influence how people feel by appealing to their emotions rather than using an actual argument.
One current rhetorical favorite is the phrase “nuclear option.” This name is applied to the process by which a majority can put an end to a filibuster or comparable delaying maneuver. Trent Lott is credited with providing the name in 2003. Interestingly, Republican Bill Frist was the person who is often credited with making this option famous in 2005.
Interestingly, Frist threatened to use this tactic against the Democrats and this resulted in quite a furor. This was eventually resolved.
Currently the term is being used by the Republicans (and Fox News) to refer to the reconciliation tactic (in which the issues can be settled by a simple majority without the possibility of filibusters). Of course, when the Republicans used reconciliations they did not refer to this as the nuclear option. Naturally, people tend not to refer to their own tactics using dysphemisms.
People use dysphemisms for an obvious reason: they work. For example, opinions on health care can be influenced by the use of this tactic. Interestingly, people who favor an idea when it is put in neutral terms can often be led to reject it merely by recasting the neutral terms in the form of dysphemisms.
While dysphemisms are part of the political toolbox, their use does raise concerns. The main concern is that they (and other rhetorical devices) can be used to influence people into accepting claims they would otherwise reject or to reject claims they would otherwise accept. Such manipulation is, at best, morally questionable.
Of course, it can be argued that if people are swayed by such rhetoric, then the fault is partially their own. After all, learning basic reasoning is rather easy and hence people have no real excuse for being such easy victims of these tactics.
This same logic could be applied to many scams as well. After all, people who fall for scams should generally know better and hence are partially to blame for their deception. But, this does not seem to diminish the wrongness of using such scams against people who do not know better.
Likewise, the use of rhetoric to manipulate people also seems to be wrong.
It can also be argued that the use of such rhetoric is acceptable because it actually helps people reach a decision. After all, one might argue, if people did not have the negative feelings in question, then a dysphemism (or other negative rhetoric could not trigger them. So, for example, if people did not have bad feelings about health care, then the Republican’s dysphemisms would not have any such bad feelings to tap into.
However, dysphemisms generally do not work by revealing a person’s true feelings about the subject. Rather, they do their work in virtue of the negative connotation of the term or phrase used. For example, suppose some people are referred to as terrorists. If someone take a negative view of them because of this, this just reveals that the person doesn’t like terrorists. It does not prove that the people dubbed “terrorists” are terrorists nor does it prove that the person’s negative feelings are justified.
While politicians will clearly not stop using rhetoric, people should work on their critical thinking skills so as to avoid being swayed by such things.