November 30, 2021

I saw this Twitter thread a little while ago:

I was immediately reminded of this:

Rufo's plan, near the outset of the moral panic over teaching about racism in schools, asserted that he and his fellow culture warriors had "decodified" the term "critical race theory" and would "recodify" it to mean "anything about race in school curricula that right-wingers don't like." Rufo and friends have been quite successful at this.

But clearly this isn't the only time right-wingers have changed the perceived meaning of a word or phrase. As @BartenderHemry says, "lockdown," for many people, now means "any annoying pandemic-related inconvenience." So now things that are a minor nuisance feel like totalitarianism to these folks, in part because their brains are conditioned to think "lockdown," which really does sound like a totalitarian restriction on freedom of movement. So right-wingers can move around freely in a mask, but they feel as if you can't. Word recodified; rage successfully induced.

"Critical race theory" doesn't seem like an inherently sinister phrase, but Rufo always saw its potential, as he explained to The New Yorker's Benjamin Wallace-Wells:

"...‘Critical race theory’ is the perfect villain,” Rufo wrote.

... “Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans, including racial minorities, who see the world as ‘creative’ rather than ‘critical,’ ‘individual’ rather than ‘racial,’ ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical.’ Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.”

Rufo and his pals have made "critical race theory" a pejorative, and now it's applied to even plain statements of fact about race that make their way into school curricula, as a mark of shame.

But the right has been identifying scare words and broadening their meanings as a tactic of rhetorical warfare for a long time. The classic right-wing scare words are "socialism" and "communism," which mean "anything right-wingers don't like." Marjorie Taylor Greene is particularly fond of using "communism" this way:

I suppose the right would argue that our side has done something similar with the word "racist," but we can make a reasonable case for nearly all uses of the term, whereas Greene just uses "communism" to refer to anything that annoys her and Rufo boasts of cynically misapplying the term "critical race theory" as a tactic of war. I don't know how you beat the right at this, but calling the tactic out might be a start.

Published with permission of No More Mr. Nice Blog

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