No matter what you may have seen or read, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is not keen on gun control.
Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.
Oh, he remains eager for laws to limit the mayhem from assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips — more so than ever after the nightmare in Newtown, Conn. What he would like, though, is to steer clear of “control,” a word fraught with negative potential.
“I think that’s a bad word,” Mr. Bloomberg said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“What about ‘regulations’?” he said. “What about sensible gun laws that limit what you can do, when you can do it, make it consistent with the Constitution but also don’t jeopardize everybody?” On Tuesday, a spokesman said that Mr. Bloomberg was also partial to the phrase “reasonable restrictions.”
Polls show that “gun control” has fallen out of favor, even among those who support policies routinely described with that phrase, the mayoral spokesman, Marc La Vorgna, said. It has been used by the likes of the National Rifle Association, he said, to convince people, unfairly, that “we want to take away everyone’s guns.”
Mr. Bloomberg’s aversion to “gun control” reinforces the role that language plays in framing discourse on controversial issues. Words matter.
We have seen this time and again, with Americans “finding words to match their ideological point of view,” said Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The Boston Globe and executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. It can result, he said, in a collision of euphemisms and their linguistic opposites, dysphemisms.
“Death tax” is a good example of a dysphemism, favored by lawmakers determined to do away with what is more neutrally known as an “estate tax” (or far from neutrally, by some just as determined to preserve this levy, a “Paris Hilton tax”). For a doozy of a euphemism, try “enhanced interrogation technique” to describe a practice like waterboarding, regarded by much of the world as torture.
Republican strategists have been notably adept at shaping debates with phrases that pack an emotional wallop: “partial-birth abortion” for a form of late-term abortion that is resorted to infrequently; “elites” as virtually a synonym for liberals; “job creators” to ennoble the super-rich.
“When Sarah Palin was talking about ‘death panels’ in the health care debate, it certainly created a kind of visceral backlash,” Mr. Zimmer said, “especially at a time when Democrats in Congress were talking about ‘the public option,’ which sounded quite bureaucratic and antiseptic.”
Other examples abound, with few more enduring in public policy debates than “pro-life” versus “pro-choice.”
Pro-life is “a brilliant phrase, even though it’s meaningless because it implies anti-life on the other side,” said Lucy Ferriss, a writer-in-residence at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. “‘Pro-choice’ has never been as strong a phrase as ‘pro-life.’”
On Monday, Ms. Ferriss tackled “gun control” in Lingua Franca, a blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Like Mr. Bloomberg, she felt the phrase didn’t sit right.
“We Americans don’t like to be controlled,” she wrote. “We don’t like anything that controls us.”
“Whatever we come up with,” she said, “should emphasize freedom: the freedom of us law-abiding citizens to go to school, the mall, the movie theater without the fear of psychopaths with assault weapons.” In a phone interview, Ms. Ferriss championed “ordinary freedom” as best suited for changes in gun policies.
“Most of us aren’t interested in the freedom to have an arsenal of weapons,” she said. “We’re interested in having our ordinary lives be as free as possible,” and that includes freedom from the sorts of security checks that heavily armed killers have forced on ever-more corners of American life.
Not everyone is convinced that language affects political positions.
On gun control, “I understand what Bloomberg means — I’m also on his side,” said John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University. “But let’s keep calling it what we call it, because changing the words will only help us along for a short time.”
“The relationship between language and thought is vastly exaggerated,” Professor McWhorter said. “Our thoughts are what we generally need to work on a lot more than what we say.”
All the same, the search for game-changing expressions will undoubtedly continue. In the gun debate that follows the mass death of innocents in Newtown, there is a phrase that the mayor and his allies have not tried. It’s one that has held up well. Maybe it’s time to breathe new meaning into “pro-life.”
E-mail Clyde Haberman: [email protected]