Monday, April 20, 2015

Another Oppophor

I have invented a sniglet.

A sniglet, for those of you who did not watch HBO’s “Not Necessarily the News” back in the early 1980s, is "any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary, but should." One from the show that I will always fondly remember is “cinemuck” – the gunk on the movie theater floor that sticks to the soles of your shoes.

The political word is full of odd phenomena. Most have coined terms, but some do not. If we were Germans, we could just take a descriptive sentence and remove all the spaces to arrive at a new word. But Americans are generally more imaginative and less literal – or at least pithier. We like to shorten things to save time.

So, here is my modest proposed contribution to political discourse:

Oppophor /ˈä-pə-fôr'/ (n): A political metaphor stolen from your opponent and distorted to poorly make the opposite point. Invoking history which teaches the opposite lesson is a common oppohor. Oppophors are often made by conservatives as part of an “I’m rubber, you’re glue” argument. For example, take their trying to portray gay rights activists as intolerant, intrusive Puritans.

Of course, this oppophor has precedent in conservative circles. As I wrote in this blog, it is akin to an earlier one in which a talk radio host warned listeners about a "witch hunt" against Christians. In both cases, social conservatives are the ones with the torches, pitchforks, and big, shiny hat buckles.

Such poor metaphors often go beyond being clunky, stretched, or inapt because they are deliberately absurd and jarring. They are an attempt to be clever and outrageous. Of course, I do not object to being provoking so long as you are honest. But this device tries to pass off dishonesty as irony or just an innocent "thought experiment" - an interesting intellectual exercise. They mine shock value by arguing that the counterfactual is actually only counterintuitive – if not the victim of a slanderous liberal media conspiracy.

Conservatives often posit that their liberal opponents are “the real [racists / fascists / sexists / hypocrites / prudes / warmongers / enemies of the poor / elitists / etc.].” Thomas Frank has written a lot about the right co-opting the word “elitist” and portraying the party of the rich as the political protector of ordinary working Joes. In their narrative, social workers are snobs and oil barons are just plain folks. I look forward to conservatives calling liberals “the real homophobes.”

The goal of such metaphors is not to convert your debate opponent but to stun them with your chutzpah. It is rhetorical shock and awe. Oppophors should backfire spectacularly and discredit its users. And they do. But they also play so well to the base that the end result is a net gain. The base, harried by accurate critiques, is hungry for any sort of rhetorical table-turning – however incoherent.

Unfortunately, this often goes way beyond metaphors to literal beliefs. As I wrote before in both my book and this blog, Ann Coulter had once claimed that liberals fought the Civil War to preserve slavery and instituted Jim Crow laws afterwards. Likewise, Reverend Pat Robertson had said that liberals are punitive, addicted to building prisons, and responsible for the War on Drugs. More recently, Robertson argued that Hillary Clinton wanted to turn the clock "back to the 50s."

But whether presented as a thought experiment or as an actual fact, the goal and effect remain the same – to co-opt liberal arguments, to subvert or invert them. The fact that Jonah Goldberg writes exclusive content for Glen Beck’s paid subscribers illustrates this. Both make absurd Nazi analogies about liberals, but Beck and his audience take them literally and Goldberg surely knows this.

Oppophor: The sniglet for our times.

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