Jef Rouner
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Why Do Conservatives Think Words Are Magic?

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Illustration by Shelby Hohl

There was a lot of nuttiness during the 2024 election, so you’re forgiven if you don’t remember all of it. However, there was one oft-overlooked incident that I think perfectly illustrated a primary problem with the modern conservative in America.

It was all the way back in May 2024, and Republican nopeful Carly Forina was being interviewed by Katie Couric, who is essentially the slow ball of political interviews. That’s not a knock on Couric. Her schtick is very much just getting to know people, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Because Fiorina was polling so low, Couric asked the candidate if she was maybe auditioning for a veep slot instead of the presidential nomination.

Fiorina’s eyes lit up and she couldn’t wait to drop the line, “Oh Katie, would you ask a male candidate that question?” At which point I screamed at the screen, “Yes, you ding dong. It’s a legitimate question. Your pretend feminism is garbage.”

Conservatives, lately, seem to think that words and phrases are magic, and that when the left says things like “would you ask a male candidate that question?” we’re playing some kind of word game where we score points with the hidden PC Overlords.

You see it a lot now in the term “fake news.” At this point the entrenched Trump supporters (and the president himself) desperately holding off facts love to call anything that accurately reports on the American dumpster fire “fake news.” It’s like Uno. First one to say the word wins.

Except, it’s not that. When the left was pointing out that Breitbart and other outlets were making things up or framing them in such a way that what truth was there was largely lost in the shuffle, it wasn’t to win an argument. It’s because Breitbart and company are generally full of malarkey. Similarly, when we point out that more than half of the statements made on Fox News turn out to be bullshit, it’s not politics. It’s just accuracy. “Fake news” is a term that actually means something.

Click on any story involving #BlackLivesMatter and you’ll see commenters contorting themselves to portray the movement as racist against white people. Or look at those women-only screenings of Wonder Woman. The alt-right and Men’s Rights Assholes couldn’t wait to drop their hot takes on why not being able to go to a single screening on a Tuesday in one theater chain was an example of sexism aimed at men. Like Fiorina, these dudes simply couldn’t wait to throw back the labels they so often receive.

The problem is that it doesn’t work, and any person with have an ounce of critical thinking knows it. Calling #BlackLivesMatter racist doesn’t change the fact that the American system is heavily biased against black people, and nothing shows that more than the recent verdict regarding the murderer of Philando Castile. A comment about hurt white feelings does not get one single black person back out of their early and unjust grave. Likewise, protesting a Ladies Night at the movies does not put men in the same boat as women suffering from systemic inequality. They’re not even near the boat. They are at best watching the boat through a telescope on Privilege Island.

There’s this bit in the fourth Harry Potter book where Mad Eye Moody is teaching the kids about the unforgivable curses in Defense Against the Dark Arts. Moody brings up the killing curse, and what it actually takes to make it work. He says, “you could all get your wands out and point them at me and say the words, and I doubt I’d get so much as a nosebleed.” The point being that words are not enough. There has to be meaning to them.

That’s the problem I have with conservatives right now. They try and co-opt the language of the left for their own means, and it’s about as real-world effective as me pointing a stick at someone and screaming “crucio.” The right understands that being called racist or sexist or dishonest is bad, but they don’t quite get that actually doing those things is bad. They obsess about the labels, and the game is to shove those labels off onto other people in a weird ploy. All they seem to care about is avoiding the label, not the actions that prompted someone to assign it to them in the first place.

Words are not magic. When we call something racist or sexist or a lie, we’re describing a tangible thing. We’re not just being mean to win. If conservatives want to be taken seriously, they need to stop trying to play a vocabulary version of Calvinball and attempt to learn what people are actually talking about. Knowledge is power, not buzzwords.