Social justice. Capitalism. Socialism. Nationalism. Systemic racism.

Each of these can be “trigger words,” which describes words that trigger strong emotions, sometimes positive, often negative.

The granddaddy of all trigger words is probably “fascist.” In 1944, a quarter century after Mussolini coined this term, George Orwell commented that fascism “is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley‘s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.”

So your Pit Bull is a fascist? Even your Golden Retriever?! Turns out that “fascist” has become merely someone, or something, I don’t like. 

It’s a truism that we live in an increasingly divided society, and, as a result, words often trigger intense emotions. How should a person with deeply-held convictions, and a penchant for civility, handle this brave new world?

Perhaps we should just avoid those trigger words, which seem to cut out light and increase heat in a conversation. 

Some of these words have questionable origins anyway. Karl Marx coined the word “capitalism.” It was pejorative, and for many Americans, and apparently most millennials, it still is. To be a capitalist consequently means that you only care about money, you are fine with exploiting vulnerable people and the environment, and, like the winner in a Monopoly game, you end up destroying your competition. To most economists, on the other hand, a capitalist is a virtuous, risk-taking entrepreneur who gives meaningful work to scores of people; capitalism helped fuel the Great Enrichment and has enabled astounding environmental progress.

Like the label “capitalism,” the term “social justice” has also evolved since it was first used in 1840. Today, it is either presented as a noble endeavor (I’ve never met a single person who said they favor injustice!) or a divisive code word for unjust racial and other preferences, involving uniform state distribution of society’s advantages and disadvantages. Or, maybe it merely means being nice to people who are disadvantaged. 

Let’s say you think policies that treat some people unequally are good, or at least necessary, if they nudge society toward more equal outcomes. That’s a mouthful, which is why we use shorthand terms like social justice. The economist Frederick Hayek wrote that he never met anyone who could really define it; regardless, he added, the word “social,” when used as an adjective, usually sucked the meaning out of any word it modified. If that is true, that’s not good for “social studies” teachers. Meanwhile, others proudly label themselves as social justice warriors. 

Unless a person is wearing a swastika and belongs to the Aryan Nation, I’m not going to call them a fascist. Maybe you are a self-avowed capitalist; I might just say that you love free markets, which is a better term anyway. Sorry, Karl. And if you use “social justice,” I might just ask you what you mean by that.

Bungled understandings of terms undermines clear analysis. The economist Thomas Sowell once wrote that “Definitions, as such, are neither ‘right’ nor ‘wrong, but conflicting definitions [make] it difficult” for people to understand each other. He wrote with clarity, avoided ambiguity, and worked diligently to define squishy terms.

Sound bites seem delicious in a world where fame might last only 15 minutes and fewer people have the patience for deliberate discussions. Still, we need to resist trigger words, even though replacing these with longer descriptions takes precision and deeper thinking.

If we are to attempt this, we require two old virtues: patience and prudence. Each of these involves some long suffering, some zipped lips, some squelching our inclination to interrupt others. It means slowing down.

Of course, as an economics instructor, I feel I must add that some awareness of the economic way of thinking and a knowledge of history helps us accomplish this as well.

Perhaps a “Trigger World Guide” will help.

You are Tempted to Say: 

“That’s reactionary!”

You Could Say:

“That idea appreciates time-tested traditions.”

You are Tempted to Say: 

“He’s a right wing nut job!” 

You Could Say:

“He appreciates time-tested traditions.”

You are Tempted to Say: 

“She’s a leftist nut job!”

You Could Say:

“She sees a vital role for governments to bring about social and economic equality.”

You are Tempted to Say: 

“A gun-toting fanatic!”

You Could Say:

“A believer in an individual’s right to self- defense.”

You are Tempted to Say: 

“That’s socialist drivel!”

You Could Say:

“That idea may have some incentive problems.”

You are Tempted to Say: 

“Globalist!”

You Could Say:

“You think international rules foster justice.”

You are Tempted to Say: 

“Jingoistic nationalist!” “

You Could Say:

You think international rules foster conflict.”

You are Tempted to Say: 

“Misogynistic pig!”

You Could Say:

“You seem to value traditional gender roles.”

You are Tempted to Say: 

“Trigger-happy warmonger!”

You Could Say:

“You seem deeply concerned about terrorism.”

You are Tempted to Say: 

“American exceptionalism!”

You Could Say:

“America has a unique history.”

You are Tempted to Say: 

“Broccoli trumps kale!” 

You Could Say:

“Broccoli is less bitter than kale.”

You are Tempted to Say: 

“Fido is a fascist!”

You Could Say:

“Fido seems like a great guard dog.”

The Bottom Line

On a serious note: We often think that the ideas of our “opponents,” from our perspective, are so, so obviously half baked, shallow, and dubious. But most bone-headed, and all excellent ideas, actually stem from notions that nearly everyone agrees with—I like to describe it as a desire for “human flourishing.”

If we start from that perspective, and temper—or at least carefully define any trigger words and phrases, that just might be a good start to a more productive conversation.

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