Culture

Ultimate Terms and Rhetorical Warfare

M.E. Filmer

In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver identifies “ultimate terms” as “those expressions to which the populace, in its actual usage and response, appears to attribute the greatest sanction.” 1, 2 Ultimate terms wield incredible political and social power, because they are rhetorical anchor points; they are beyond question. They are the “‘rhetorical absolutes’…to which the very highest respect is paid.” 3 Terms of lesser rhetorical strength are ordered by their relation to our god and devil terms, and obtain this lesser strength in reference to these ultimate terms.4 

Ultimate terms not only reflect the ethos of a given society, but also play a role in molding the society, bringing its members into conformity with that ethos. It is for this reason that ultimate terms are of special concern for Christians; they shape the minds and affections of ourselves and our children.

Our Rhetorical Landscape

The West today finds itself caught in the rhetorical frame of the Left, as evidenced by our ultimate terms: words such as “diversity” and “equality” are our god terms, while “racism,” “fascist,” or “homophobic” serve as our devil terms.5 These terms either emerged or found new significance during the 20th century–they are tied to the various social and political revolutions of that era.

For decades, American conservatives have tried to operate within the Left’s rhetorical frame, attempting to adapt and utilize ultimate terms accordingly. Although conservatives have increasingly adopted the Left’s god terms, this tendency is still most evident when we consider conservative use of liberal devil terms.

Conservatives attempt to use devil terms like “racist,” “fascist,” “misogynist,” or “anti-semite” primarily in two ways:

  1. To police the right-wing border of their own movement. This usage is essentially the same as that of the Left.
  2. Some conservatives attempt to turn these words around and use them against the Left. (E.g., “the Democrats are the real racists.”)

Using the Left’s devil terms in these ways requires conservatives to affirm the fundamental validity of the terms, but also puts conservatives between a rock and a hard place, since these are the very words the Left uses to attack them. They need to find some means of justifying the terms while also preventing their use against moderate conservatives.

As a result, conservatives become preoccupied with definitions: “Of course racism is a reprehensible evil, provided we’re defining it correctly!” They become frustrated when their reasonable efforts to clarify definitions are ignored. And they’re shocked when the Left uses terms like “racism” hypocritically, or in a way that doesn’t seem to comport with the stated meaning. “But the dictionary definition of racism is [X]!” The hegemonic Left—which created and owns the term and has the power to alter it—changes the definition in response, and conservatives feel cheated. They wanted to use that term too!

Some conservatives realize the problem with using terms owned by the Left, but are still attached to the underlying concept. They attempt to invent their own terms—rough approximations of the original term—that they own and can clearly define. Various evangelical leaders, for example, have used “ethnic partiality” in place of “racism.” But these terms never achieve the same rhetorical power as the original, Left-owned terms. There are at least two reasons for this: 1) because the original term is widely accepted and difficult to supplant; 2) because the new term, though used by conservatives, still relies on liberal coded values, which creates tension. You can’t out-left the leftists.

Facing Reality

The fundamental problem is that conservatives–regardless of whether they realize and admit it–have some form of liberalism as their starting point. Notice that ultimate terms which have their genesis in 20th century liberalism hold the most sway over conservatives. The mid to late 20th-century understanding of “racism,” for example, is [to them] objective and factual. It’s the “reasonable” position. They’ve largely absorbed the idea of a general, late 20th century consensus that they perceive as “neutral” and “objective,” and representing significant progress beyond the ignorance and close-mindedness of prior eras.

This shift in the collective psyche is best understood as a gradual severance from our uniquely Christian and European heritage and traditions. Contemporary conservatives fail to realize that this liberal order was not the destination, but just a short transition period leading to the world we live in today. The end of liberalism is leftism; it was the Left of years gone by and gave birth to the Left of today.

Rhetorical Warfare

If we are to defend our Faith and our heritage, Christians and conservatives must summon the force of will to launch a head-on assault on leftism and the liberalism that gave birth to it. No more policing the right-wing border. We must be confidently and unapologetically right-wing.

This absolutely requires us to reject, both in name and in concept, liberal and leftist devil terms. They must be utterly delegitimized. This goes beyond merely pointing out the hypocritical application of the terms. Question them at every opportunity. Demonstrate that they are devoid of any true content; the only purpose of a word like “racism” is to attack the Right. Mock them; show that these terms are losing their potency by joking about them. Provide opportunities for conservatives to discuss topics that have long been taken off the table by the power of these terms.

The ultimate power play is to turn the enemy’s god terms into devil terms. “Equality,” “diversity,” “multicultural,” “pluralism,” etc., should all be transformed into devil terms. This must be done gradually and with great caution, and has to be proportionate to the actual power held by the Right, or it will certainly backfire. But it is a necessary ambition of the ascendent Right.

Towards a Positive Vision

Waging a rhetorical war on leftist ultimate terms, while crucial, is not sufficient; we also need a positive vision with corresponding god terms that reflect this vision, not merely a knee-jerk reaction to the Left.

While the enemy’s god terms should be turned to devil terms, it must be emphasized that the converse is not true; the enemy’s devil terms should not necessarily be turned into god terms. Devil terms represent your cultural enemy–what you oppose. God terms represent your culture’s positive vision. By definition, you oppose your enemies, but your enemies must not set the positive vision of your society, even in a negative sense. A culture must have a positive vision, not merely a negative vision of what they oppose.

As Christians, the ultimate source and ground of our positive vision is the Logos spoken of by John the Apostle; that Word, through whom were made all things, who was with God, and *is* God; our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We seek to defend and uphold the created order gifted to us by our great God, and we subject ourselves to the authority of His Scriptures.

Let us thank God also for our rich heritage stretching centuries into the past, and seek to preserve this heritage for our posterity. We stand on the shoulders of great men, who affirmed these same truths and handed them down to us. We must resist the urge of our [anti-]culture to be ashamed of our forebears. Instead, let us honor them by following in their footsteps and bring up our children to do likewise.

May our god terms reflect and promulgate this positive vision rooted in our Faith and heritage: “truth,” “order,” “tradition,” “hierarchy,” “faith,” “Christian.”

Sources

1 Richard M. Weaver, The Ethics of Rhetoric (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953), 212,  https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/68421.html.images.

2 Weaver speaks of three types of ultimate terms: “god terms,” “devil terms,” and “charismatic terms.” Our analysis will primarily focus on god and devil terms.

3 Weaver, Ethics of Rhetoric, 212.

4 The “god term” demands deference and sacrifice for its own sake, and is not required to justify itself; it is tacitly assumed to be or to represent an ultimate good. The “devil term” occupies a position opposite that of the god term. It is the ultimate evil; to even question the abhorrence of the devil term is profoundly transgressive.
5 Although the language of ultimate terms suggests that we could identify a particular word as the god term, and another as the devil term, this is not necessary for our purposes; we will assume instead that several words may simultaneously function as god or devil terms in a given cultural context, all existing very near the top of the rhetorical hierarchy.

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