Eleven R-Words that Scream Political Bias

Power Words for Political Liars

Photo by Elijah O'Donnell on Unsplash

Fake news bombards us. However, while everyone is alert to the problem of news stories that intentionally disseminate false facts or show manipulated photos and videos, few of us are paying enough attention to the old fashioned ways that the news is distorted.

These old fashioned distortions are typically subtle. Often they amount to little more than a seemingly innocuous word choice. These biased word choices, though, can significantly alter the readers’ interpretation of a story, and ultimately do as much damage as outright fake news.

There are scores of words that are misused in this way, but to keep it simple, only a few red-flag words beginning with R are listed. Readers can add words that begin with other letters, or even more words that begin with R. But here are some R-words to be alert to, in alphabetical order.

(1) Radical

Usually used as a modifier, “radical” signals that an idea, movement, or group that readers might otherwise support is so dangerously outside the mainstream that they should oppose it. Often there is no other reason for readers to reach this conclusion than the use of the modifier “radical.” This makes the use of the modifier “radical” manipulative. Note, for instance, what happens to feminism and Islam when they are modified by the word radical. “Radical feminism” and “radical Islam” don’t sound as appealing, do they?

(2) Ramble

A common way to discourage readers from taking the content of a piece of writing seriously is to describe it as rambling, whether or not it is. I remember when both the manifesto of the Unabomber and a piece by Osama bin Laden were referred to as rambling. I read both and didn’t think either rambled. By contrast, I think the New Testament rambles. (What’s with four different gospels telling the same story?) But of course nobody dares refer to the New Testament as rambling. Nowadays the writings of mass shooters are invariably described as rambling. They may be — I haven’t read them — but I do know that the writings of those we’re supposed to disagree with are regularly dismissed as rambling.

(3) Rant

Rant is the cousin of ramble, though applied to the spoken as opposed to the written word. The impassioned oratory of someone you like and admire is referred to as a speech. The same from someone you don’t like or admire is called a rant. Power plays a role too. Mayors give speeches; citizens voicing concerns at city council meetings rant.

(4) Regime

The main difference between a government and a regime is whether or not you support it. Thus, calling a government a regime immediately undermines its legitimacy without bothering to explain why. In fact, good people openly debate “regime change,” but not as many discuss “overthrowing governments.”

(5) Repression

Governments are inherently repressive. Nobody is allowed to run red lights, refuse to pay their taxes, or skinny dip in public fountains. Governments are also charged to use their repressive powers to maintain public order and public safety. What therefore is a government supposed to do when protesters lay siege to public buildings, blockade streets, and loot stores? This is what occurred in Nicaragua in 2018. Naturally, the government’s response was said to be repressive. Actually, it was excessive and inappropriate. Even so, there was no way for the government to respond that wouldn’t invite the accusation of repression, which makes the casual use of the term “repression” easily misleading.

(6) Rescue

People are suckers for stories with clear victims and villains. Unfortunately, reality rarely provides stories in which victims and villains are easily distinguished. A good way to create the distinction is to write that some of the characters were rescued while others were arrested (not quite an R-word, but close enough). Obviously, victims are rescued while villains are arrested. Unfortunately, law enforcement often contributes to this charade. When sting operations target brothels, for example, the women are frequently said to be rescued while the men are arrested.

(7) Resistance

No government has the support of all its citizens; every government has an opposition. Anyone who supports an opposition to the point of wanting to deprive a government of legitimacy and justify illegal acts against it can therefore call the opposition a resistance and get their point across without bothering to justify it. The word choice makes a difference. You may, for example, agree with me in opposing the presidency of Donald Trump, but the minute we refer to ourselves as a resistance, the political situation has changed dramatically.

(8) Revolt

When is a strike or a demonstration a revolt, and when is it merely a strike or a demonstration? The distinction mostly lies with the biases of the reporters. If they favor the demonstrators, they are usually referred to as striking or demonstrating. If they don’t favor them, they are said to be revolting. The usual people said to be revolting are prisoners, and they aren’t usually favored.

(9) Revolution

See radical above. As a rule, people only favor revolutions that took place before they were born and have become part of their heritage. Describing people, causes, or ideas as revolutionary today is accordingly a way to make them appear dangerously extreme. By the way, somebody needs to tell Bernie Sanders this, although his rumpled septuagenarian demeanor almost makes his calls for a revolution palatable.

(10) Rights

Rights, of course, are good things, and every use of the term isn’t a sign of bias. However, the term is increasingly used in biased ways (even as there is disagreement over what rights exist and why). The bias is rooted in international law, which defines rights only in relation to governments. This creates situations in which protesters killed by police are said to be victims of human rights abuses, but bystanders killed by the protesters aren’t. (They’re simply dead.) Police and other government authorities are thus put in the position of trying to protect innocent bystanders, yet at risk of being accused abusing the human rights of the criminals when they do. Although not always, the mention of human rights violations in news stories should raise red flags, since this rhetoric is increasingly used to take sides in political struggles in which both sides are violating human rights but only one side can be legally accused of it.

(11) Right-Wing

Some people’s political opinions veer toward the right of the conventional ideological continuum, but most of these people don’t consider themselves political extremists. They regard themselves as ordinary people with reasonable opinions. Labeling them right-wing, though, marginalizes them as extremists, and discourages readers from listening to what they have to say. The use of this label is therefore usually a sign of bias. Of course, the same bias appears when people are pigeon-holed as left-wing, although this article is only about the R-words. L-words can be left for another day.

Ken is a former professor and writer in Costa Rica. His most recent books are “On American Freedom” and “Unfinished Revolution.”

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