A recent “Morning Edition” segment[i] on National Public Radio (NPR) concerned a Chinese newspaper editorial that sparked national debate over freedom of the press.
The South Chinese paper is called Southern Weekend, which the NPR clip dubbed “progressive” for its position that China to adhere to its own constitution, including free speech, free press and rule of law. Conversely, NPR dubbed another Chinese paper, the Global Times, a “very conservative, state-run paper” for publishing a counter-editorial “criticizing the protest and saying China can’t actually have, you know, what we in the West would consider a free press. And they blamed people – what they call external activists – for hijacking the issue.”
Of course, this is an interesting story in its own right, intended to persuade the West that there is a Chinese spring in the air, but it was the use of “progressive” and “conservative” that was particularly interesting. In U.S. politics, these labels usually are almost diametrically opposite to NPR’s application of them to Chinese politics. The typical American conservative is the person who wants his country to adhere to its constitution; the typical American progressive wants “change.” Is this just another example of doublespeak – a term to describe speech that distorts or even reverses the meaning of words – which has ever been the stuff of public discourse? [ii]
I would suspect that the authors of the NPR segment might argue that they never intended “progressive” or “conservative” to represent specific ideological positions but, rather, a relationship to prevailing social positions. Whether government policies are fair or foul, those who support them are “conservatives” and those who oppose them are “progressive.”
This is marvelously useful, particularly in places where “conservativism” is wielded as a pejorative. Abortion has been legal for 40 years – therefore, it must be that it is the pro-aborts who are “conservative” and the pro-lifers who are progressive. Traditional marriage (in which one woman and one man are bound to each other for life with a goal to the rearing and educating of progeny) hasn’t been the dominant social reality for well over a generation. Evidently this means that same-sex “marriage” advocates are the real “right-wingers” of these culture wars.
Words, words, words. Such magnificent abuse of them would be humorous if only there was someone with whom to share the joke.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block also edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper.
[i] Renee Montagne and Frank Langfitt, “Editorial Ignites Freedom Of Press Debate In China,” National Public Radio, “Morning Edition” 1-8-13
[ii] George Orwell’s invention of newspeak in Brave New World and Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty in Alice through the Looking Glass provide some classic explanation of the phenomenon.