Just Say No

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"Just Say No to Political Labels"
By Mark Coleman
Editor's note: The original version of this article, written in 1991, was intended as a critique of The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, which at many newspapers is the stylebook standard, backed by a standard dictionary and sometimes an in-house stylebook, such as at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. As a document circulated among professionals and friends, it resulted in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin implementing a style rule that prohibited, in general, the use of political labels in objective news copy. In 1992 the article was updated slightly to give it a broader focus, and that is the version featured here.
 


Until an acceptable political spectrum can be developed, journalists should stop using political labels such as "right-wing" and "left-wing." Such labels typically confuse philosophy and context, and their use has clouded the significance of recent geopolitical events.

Not only are such labels commonly used to describe both broad political philosophies and factions within those philosophies, they also take on different meanings depending on the nation or region being reported on. Moreover, journalists rarely bother to explain in which sense they are using these labels, and when they do, the attempts rarely are adequate. News audiences are left rudderless.

The main problem is the lack of consensus about what comprises the political spectrum. On a philosophical basis, what is right and what is left? Does the political spectrum run along a straight line or is it a circle or a square?

Various individuals and political organizations have devoted attention to this problem, but perhaps now could be an appropriate time for some prominent news organization to research and develop a political spectrum that accounts for all the political movements and developments of the world, so news audiences won't have to guess about meanings each time they encounter political labels.

So far the closest any news organization has come to trying to explain the meaning of terms such as right-wing and left-wing has been The Associated Press in its frequently updated Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. The Associated Press is a $275 million-a-year not-for-profit cooperative news service based in New York City that serves more than 1,400 newspapers and 6,000 broadcast members in the United States and more than 8,500 subscribers in 112 countries abroad. Yet despite its apparent influence, it doesn't seem to have made any attempt to be systematic about political labels, and its stylebook frequently begs more questions than provides answers.

Perhaps not suprisingly, the AP Stylebook also ultimately advises that journalists "in general" avoid using certain political labels "in favor of a more precise definition of an individual's political philosophy," and until a univeral political spectrum is developed, that would be my advice also.

In the meantime, the AP Stylebook's esteemed advice often is ignored, even by AP reporters! This was especially evident in the August 1991 reports about the attempted overthrow of Mikhail Gorbachev as president of the Soviet Union. The country's ruling Communists, usually regarded as "leftist," suddenly were being threatened by "rightists" from within their own party, who presumably were "rightists" only because they were more loyal to their "leftist" political philosophy than the people they were trying to overthrow.

As late as Dec. 26, 1991, an AP correspondent in Moscow was reporting that, "The Russian right, shifting its wrath from Mikhail S. Gorbachev to Boris Yeltsin, lashed out today at the Russian president and labeled his economic reforms just 'another grand experiment.'"

The page 1 headline in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin screamed: "Russian right wing goes after Yeltsin."
A subsequent paragraph made it clear that these "rightists" were actually members of Russia's presumably leftist Communist Workers' Party, prompting some readers of the Star-Bulletin to call in and proclaim that as so-called right-wingers in the United States, they were supporters of Yeltsin and hoped he would prevail over the so-called right-wingers of Russia.

As Norman Lockman of the Wilmington New Journal bemoaned in his nationally syndicated column of Aug. 29, 1991: "Those of us who throw around terms terms like 'Right' and 'Left' used to have it easy. People on the Right were conservative, and people on the Left were liberal. Taken to extremes, it could even be used as political shorthand for capitalism and socialism."

But then, Lockman noted, "The old guard of the (Soviet) Commnist Party turned nasty. These old Leftists, flying in the face of the prevailing liberalizing sentiment in the Soviet Union, were immediately labeled as right-wingers. The reformers in the Soviet Union therefore became members of the political Left, although they represented the kind of anti-central government republicanism that we have associated with the political Right in the non-Communist world."

Syndicated columnist Cecil Johnson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram also was disturbed by this dubious use of labels.

"What used to be left is right and vice versa," he said.

Johnson noted that, "The erstwhile leaders of the coup that temporarily de-Kremlined Mikhail Gorbachev were often referred to as conservatives." But, he continued, "conservative is a characterization that used to be, and in most places is still, associated with political rightwardness." So, "sensing that, some in the communications business have taken to referring to the stalwart defenders of Soviet Communism as hard-liners. That term, however, cannot stand alone. They have to be hard-line something, and that something is communist, which makes them hard-line leftists." 

Johnson and Lockman, of course, are not the only ones to have complained lately about the use and abuse of political labels. A growing chorus of journalists, political scientists, and others has expressed dismay at the media's approach to political labels.

Usually unstated is that this confusion about political labels reflects the widespread confusion and lack of consensus about the political spectrum itself, and, indeed, what is the political spectrum?
Some reporters and headline writers imply they know:

* An Oct. 1991 Gannett News Service story opened with the assertion that, "Check-bouncing members of the House are being rapped harshly from both the right and the left for damaging the reputation of Congress."

* The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 16, 1991 announced in a headline that, "Confirmation Ordeal May Affect the Views Of Justice Thomas: On That, Antagonists Agree, Yet the Left and the Right Both See Possible Gains -- Key Rulings Due This Term."

* Associated Press itself reported in the headline-style summary (for wire editors) of its May 6 dispatch from Stanford, Calif., that, "Conference: First Amendment Being Assaulted by Political Right and Left." In each of these cases, no definitions were provided for the terms "left" and "right."

What is "left" and what is "right"? The news reports didn't explain, and The Associated Press Stylebook doesn't offer much help either. Where the stylebook does try to explain certain political labels, it often uses other political labels that are equally dubious.

A rightist, says the Associated Press Stylebook, "often applies to someone who is conservative or opposed to socialism. It also indicates an individual who supports an authoritarian government that is militantly anti-communist or anti-socialist."

An ultra-rightist, according to the Associated Press Stylebook, "suggests an individual also subscribes to rigid interpretations of a conservative doctrine or to forms of fascism that stress authoritarian, often militaristic views."

The AP Stylebook has no entries for the terms "authoritarian," "authoritarianism," "anti-communist," "anti-socialist" or "militaristic," while for "conservative," "socialist, socialism," and "fascism, fascist," we are told to "see the political parties and philosophies entry." This entry, however, is simply a guide on when to capitalize or lowercase the first letters of political labels and nothing more.

Also in the entry for "rightist, ultra-rightist," we are urged to see the entries for "radical" and "leftist, ultra-leftist."

Under radical we are urged to "in general, avoid this description in favor of a more precise definition of an individual's political views." "But when used," it adds, the term suggests "that an individual believes change must be made by tearing up the roots or foundation of the present order."

The entry notes that "although radical often is applied to individuals who hold strong socialist or communist views, it also is applied at times to individuals who believe an existing form of government must be replaced by a more authoritarian or militarist one."

Thus, presumably, a radical could be either a leftist or a rightist, a socialist or a militarist. And indeed, the listing for radical concludes by suggesting that we "see the leftist, ultra-leftist and rightist, ultra-rightist entries."

Under "leftist, ultra-leftist," the stylebook advises journalists to, "in general, avoid these terms in favor of a more precise description of an individual's political philosophy."

It goes on to elaborate, however, that, "as popularly used today, particularly abroad, leftist often applies to someone who is merely a liberal or believes in a form of democratic socialism."

Ultra-leftist, it says, "suggests an individual who subscribes to a communist view or one holding that liberal or socialist change cannot come within the present form of government."

There is no entry for "democratic socialism," while under "liberal, liberalism" and "socialist, socialism" we are advised to, "See the political parties and philosophies entry."

For "communism, communist," the AP Stylebook entry tells us to lowercase communism and capitalize Communist "only when referring to the activities of the Communist Party or to individuals who are members of it: The Communists won the election. She ran on the Communist ticket."

We also are urged once again to see the "political parties and philosophies" entry, which as I stated previously, has only to do with when to capitalize or lowercase the first letters of certain political labels. It does not provide definitions for any of the terms it uses in the entry.

But, then, who said a stylebook is supposed to provide definitions? 

The purpose of a stylebook is to offer a standard for literary usage: when to capitalize; when to italisize; how to use numerals; how to punctuate; when to use which or that.

Yet, the AP Stylebook attempts to define at least a few of the commonly used political labels that frequently crop up in journalistic reports. On that basis, we perhaps may be justified in holding it to a higher standard than otherwise.

As The Associated Press President and General Manager Lou Boccardi wrote in the AP Stylebook's foreword, the publication was intended primarily as a stylebook, but many "factual references" were added. Thus, he said, "we have a Stylebook, but also a reference work." In trying to be both, however, The AP Stylebook, may be working against itself: It uses "factual references" to help explain the meaning of certain political labels, but the factual references, too, employ dubious political labels.

Worse, the stylebook doesn't explain that there are at least two ways in which political labels can be used philosophical and contextual so its advice about generally avoiding such labels is pretty much negated by its attempts to flesh them out with "factual references."

Despite the AP Stylebook's stated intention to be more than just a stylebook, and despite the widespread confusion about political terms such as "rightist" and "leftists," Norman Goldstein, an editor and writer of the stylebook, said in a November 1991 telephone interview that there were no plans to revise the entries for those labels for the publication's next edition.


So where does that leave us?

Well, also in the stylebook's foreword, Boccardi recommended that journalists "rely heavily on the chosen dictionary as the arbiter of conflicts."

At Gannett Corp.'s Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Webster's is the chosen dictionary, but it, too, is of little help because many of its definitions also are vague or contradictory. Webster's, too, frequently confuses philosophy and context, as shown by its definition for rightist.

According to Webster's New World Dictionary (1989), a rightist is "a person whose political position is conservative or reactionary."

Webster's defines conservative as "conserving or tending to conserve; preservative," and "tending to preserve established institutions or methods and to resist or oppose any changes in these." Thus, a rightist resists or opposes change.

A leftist, on the other hand, is "a person whose political position is liberal or radical." 

Webster's defines liberal as "suitable for a freeman; not restricted ... favoring reform or progress ... (and) favoring political reforms tending toward democracy."

Thus, leftists favor reform, freedom and democracy, while rightists simply oppose change. But opposing change is not always the same as opposing freedom and democracy. In effect, Webster's by its definitions has accorded a political philosophy to leftists, but not to rightists. The term leftist is used in both a contextual and philosophical sense, but the term rightist is used only contextually or institutionally.

In the United States, many free market advocates bristle at being tagged conservative or rightist because of the implication it carries about opposing change.

As economist and philosopher Friedrich A. Hayek noted in his 1961 essay "Why I Am Not A Conservative," "the position which can be rightly described as conservative at any time depends ... on the direction of existing tendencies," but "since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance." Hayek, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1974, said that as a proponent of "free growth and spontaneous evolution" he had long described himself as a liberal, but, "I have done so more recently with increasing misgivings, because in the United States this term constantly gives rise to misunderstanding."

Hayek explained that his own version of liberalism was not against change per se. In fact, he said, "so far as much of current governmental action is concerned, there is in the present world very little reason for the liberal to wish to preserve things as they are. It would seem to the liberal, indeed, that what is most urgently needed in most parts of the world is a thorough sweeping-away of the obstacles to free growth."

Hayek added that: "This difference between liberalism and conservatism must not be obscured by the fact that in the United States it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions. To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long-established or because they are American but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes."

Ironically, one of Webster's' definitions for communism is: "loosely, any political ideas or activity thought of as leftist." But if communists really are leftists, then the reformists favoring democracy and freedom in dictatorial communist nations would be rightists and conservatives, not leftists and liberals, as the reformists in the former Soviet Union were labeled.

The point is that if the dictionary can't even get these terms straight, whom can we trust?

In 1979, Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language even stated that the Conservative Party of England was "right-wing," while elsewhere it defined right-wing as "the more conservative or reactionary section of a political party, group, etc." In effect, Webster's was calling a right-wing political party a reactionary section of a political party! 

This linguistic transgression by the dictionary itself (one which has since been rectified somewhat) well demonstrates the difficulty of using one set of labels to describe two distinct concepts: a political philosophy situated somewhere along a political spectrum, and the political factions within that philosophy. Throw in the common practice of using labels differently according to geographical location and confusion intensifies.

Going back to the AP Stylebook, it suggests that political philosophies considered "leftist" or "ultra-leftist" include liberalism, socialism, democratic socialism, and communism. Philosophies considered "rightist" or "ultra-rightist" would include anti-socialism, anti-communism, authoritarianism, fascism, and militarism.

By implication, this would comprise AP's understanding of the political spectrum, though undoubtedly a case could be made that this range of philosophical possibilities is a poor representation of the actual political spectrum. There is no entry in the AP Stylebook, for example, for the increasingly common term "libertarian." And if there were, on which end of the political spectrum would the AP Stylebook place it?

As for the political spectrum itself, is it right-to-left along a horizontal straight line, or is it perhaps a circle or a quartered square? Compelling cases have been made for each of these possibilities.
A good depiction of the political spectrum as a circle can be found in Jerome Tuccille's 1970 book "Radical Libertarianism: A New Political Alternative" (Perennial Library, Harper & Row, New York).

The biggest promoter of the quartered square (or Diamond Chart) to represent the political spectrum is Marshall Fritz of Advocates for Self-Government, Inc. Fritz's inspiration for the Diamond Chart was advertising executive David Nolan, a founder in 1972 of the Libertarian Party and designer of the "liber sign," which featured a horizontal straight line (the traditional right-to-left spectrum) intersected by an arrow pointing upward to the right.

A similar rendition of both the "Diamond Chart" and the Tucille circle appeared in the November/December 1991 edition of Utne Reader magazine, developed by the magazine's editor Jay Walljasper and University of Minnesota political science instructors Eric Selbin and Ron Steiner.

These and other renditions of the political spectrum should be consulted by any news organization willing to take up the challenge of developing and offering a political spectrum that accounts for all the subtleties of contemporary world events.

Why is it so hard to agree on what comprises the political spectrum? A major reason has to do with how terms such as freedom, liberty, force and aggression are defined. What is freedom? What is force? Even if we could agree on the meanings of these terms, on which sides of the political spectrum should they be placed?

Historians have traced use of the terms left and right back to the seating arrangements of political factions within the French National Assembly of 1789. The French liberals, favoring free markets and free trade, sat on the left; the moderates sat in the center; and the conservatives, favoring the ancien regime and state privelege, sat on the right. This arbitrary classification obviously has broken down over the last two centuries, and it probably is time that a new classification system be presented.

On the other hand, perhaps political labels should be jettisoned completely.

Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz is among those who believes that labels often are used to manipulate and dominate people.

"In the animal kingdom," Szasz wrote in 1972, "the rule is eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined."

In this Szaszian view of language, those who use dubious or even deliberately misleading terms often do so because they wish to discredit or deny legitimacy to their opponents. Szasz was alarmed especially by the tendency to label political or cultural dissenters as mentally ill, and the focus of his large body of writings has been to expose and rail against the dreaded Therapeutic State.

But not only psychiatrists have misued language to "close man's mind by confusing his tongue." Politicians and their sychophants have misused the terms "conservative" and "liberal", "right" and "left" for eons, and journalists have done little to set matters straight whether out of political conspiracy or just plain laziness.

Australian journalist John Hyde observed in the Nov. 16-17, 1985 edition of the Financial Australian that, "Except when used as labels in established political context, as with the (Australian) Labor factions, right and left are not much more than vague insults."

Hyde's implication was that the labels are indeed used to discredit opponents and gain a moral advantage. As we know from recent events, sometimes it's considered disadvantageous to be labeled a "rightist" or "ultra-rightist," as ex-Ku Klux Klansman David Duke found when running for governor of Louisiana in 1991. Other times it's a major liability to be known as a "leftist" or a "liberal." Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 U.S. presidential election in part because he was so strongly identified with the infamous "L word" -- liberalism.

Hyde concluded that political labels such as "right" and "left" in general are "poor adjectives" and have caused "more confusion and produced more acrimony than any other over-simplification I can think of."

Nationally syndicated columnist Louis Rukeyser commented in his May 6, 1991 column that "labels are a wonderful substitute for thinking," and "lead to a certain amount of confusion in the real world."

"Labels are not just misleading," said Rukeyser, "they are downright illusive."

Economist and financial investment adviser Mark Skousen complained about the misuse of political labels in the July 1990 edition of Liberty magazine, in an article aptly titled, "No More Political Labels, Please."

"Categorizing someone's ideas as either 'liberal' or 'conservative'" he said, "is often used to avoid real thinking about actual issues."

In a case of mea culpa, the New York Times recently admitted (in the April 1991 edition of its "Winners & Sinners" newsletter that it sends to its wire service clients) that, based on "some electronic research," an executive of a Washington research organization was "largely right" in his charge that New York Times reporters "regularly couple 'conservative' with mentions of his institutions and its writers and scholars but don't attach labels to others."

Agreeing that this perhaps would tend to indicate a bias on its part, the New York Times in its newsletter advised that "when writing about the work of individuals affiliated with the research groups ... we should name the institution but skip the characterization," since "we can rarely be certain a person shares the institution's politics, ... so the implicit suggestion in 'conservative' or 'liberal' is unfair." 

Echoing the AP Stylebook somewhat, the NYT newsletter advised that: "Descriptive detail beyond 'conservative' or 'liberal' is also valuable. And of course we should do the labeling consistently, across the spectrum."


There's that old spectrum again.

But the "Winners & Sinners" advice about consistency is well taken. Not only is it a matter of fairness, as the New York Times newsletter implied, it also is a matter of meaning, which is why the newsletter made the point about adding more descriptive detail beyond the initial political labels. Journalists need to be clear and consistent if they are to increase common understanding of public issues.

And, of course, to help achieve a standard for communication is one of the goals of the AP Stylebook; as the AP's Lou Boccardi explained in its foreword, the publication's initial purpose was to facilitate "uniformity for reading ease."

But perhaps at this point we also should ask whether linguistic uniformity is a realistic goal anyway. Facilitating uniformity for reading or listening ease surely is a grand goal, especially to the extent that it may enable people to make better decisions about how they should live their lives. But is it possible to establish a language in which all words mean the same thing to everybody?

University of Hawaii communications professor Huber Ellingsworth used to ask: Are meanings in words or are meanings in people?

Considering the incredible diversity of cultures worldwide, can there ever be a single understanding of certain words or labels?

This is a question that even has religious overtones.

Szasz pointed out that under Christian doctrine, "speaking clearly" or "using the language properly" was considered the Second Sin, after the Original Sin of knowing and doing good and evil. As the Second Sin, using language properly brought forth God's second punishment, the Divine Confusion. Specifically, everyone at one time supposedly spoke the same language, until they tried to build a tower "with its top in heaven." "

And the Lord said, 'Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.' ... Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. ..." (Genesis: 11:6-9)

Szasz used this parable to make his point about "the nature of man and, more particularly, ... the nature of authority and its dependence on a monopoly over not only information but language itself. ..." He said it didn't matter whether the "confusion and stupefaction are inspired divinely, governmentally, or psychiatrically, the result is the same: the parentification of authority and the infantilization of nearly everyone else."

Szasz did not mention where journalists fit into this conspiratorial notion of language abuse, but it isn't as if journalists haven't been advised to avoid using dubious political labels. The AP Stylebook, among others, has urged that political labels be dropped in favor of more information about a person's political beliefs.

The implication is that journalists should cease using terms such as conservative or liberal, rightist or leftist, and instead explain specifically what a person favors or opposes, or has done or intends to do -- and let the readers or listeners take it from there.

An example of this advice in practice occurred recently at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. A reporter turned in a story that referred to the director of a local foundation as a "fiscal conservative." But considering that it was the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, and that the director was warning against an increase in the state excise tax because of the negative impact it might have on the economy, the label seemed extraneous if not distracting. The label was deleted, and the story read just fine without it. The man was taken at his word, and not on the basis of some politically charged label.

Since then, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin has adopted a style rule, to reinforce the AP style rule, that says: "In general, don't use political labels such as 'right-wing' or 'left-wing,' 'liberal' or 'conservative.' Instead, explain specifically what an individual or group advocates on a particular issue and let our readers take it from there. An exception would be if an individual or group labels itself as right-wing or left-wing, liberal or conservative. Please be attentive to this in wire stories as well as local copy."

Unfortunately, not all journalists adhere to recommended style or have backup editors who will keep their copy stripped to the essentials, and news audiences surely will continue to endure dubious political labels for some time to come. Journalists will continue to throw these labels about as if everyone knew what they meant, when in fact few people even have a clue.

This is where a systematic analysis by a major news organization of political terminology and the political spectrum could provide a valuable public service.

At the risk of intruding on anybody's heavenly monopoly on language and power, journalists could become more useful and valuable to the public discourse if they could speak with words that all news audiences could understand.

In the meantime, even if these labels could be explained to the satisfaction of a majority of the news audience, some people probably still would disagree as to their meanings, so again as the AP Stylebook advises it's probably best to "in general, avoid these terms in favor of a more precise definition of an individual's political philosophy."


In Appreciation
The following individuals offered help or inspiration during the preparation of this article: Mary Adamski, Lee Catterall, Kevin Hand, Oscar Kuwahara, Steve Petranik, David Shapiro and George Steele of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Tom Brandt of the Hawaii Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism, economist Ken Schoolland of Hawaii Pacific University, Merrill Perlman of the New York Times, Toni Mann of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, and John Luter and especially Beverly Keever of the University of Hawaii Journalism Department.