Remember opposite day, that inane but vaguely amusing game from elementary school? A game where the sentence, "you're really pretty -- it's opposite day" blurted out in mixed company was a quick-witted insult worthy of laughter? Well, maybe only till first grade, but still.
It seems, in our America, we've instituted opposite century. Only it's a bit more convoluted and complicated than that old stand-by we played in earlier days.
In our America, we cherish freedom -- ask anyone, they'll tell you so. And so we are free, very free, to pay handsomely for our own education, scrape together funds for our own retirement and pay for our own health insurance that gets us closer to the right to pay for our own health care. Liberating, isn't it?
Only those among us who have been denied the right to purchase health care for one of a million standard life experiences that we've renamed "pre-existing conditions" know that even "your" money, and lots of it, doesn't purchase you everything in the market we've been taught to revere.
We might not have a free market but we do have free-marketing. Just consider this commercial, fear-mongering at its finest brought to you by Bristol Myers Squibb. It features a seemingly healthy woman stalked by a hospital gurney, an ominous indicator of just how precarious life really is. Unless you take Plavix, of course. Assuming you're free to pay for the right to pay to see a doctor, like the handsome and attentive one featured in this ad.
In our America, drug companies are allowed to market directly to consumers -- something barred in other Western states were the right to see a professional who could actually provide these drugs is guaranteed by those same states. Here, the image and desire for the drug can be sold freely; the drug itself -- well, that's a bit more selective. Essentially, we've worked out an opposite scheme to that of our European neighbors.
In our America, you need a prescription for the most routine, non-addictive, necessary substances like antibiotics though pharmacists train for almost a decade to earn their degrees. Other countries offer such medicines "behind-the-counter"; this means pharmacists can dispense them along with advice for their proper use. We just offer the right, excuse me -- the freedom, to see them on t.v.
Since it's opposite day all the time, I'm happy to declare I feel free indeed. Someday soon, I hope to be free to inspect restaurants and supermarkets on my own for compliance with health standards -- in my abundant free time. Never mind I have no qualifications for this job. When government steps out, we become more free -- haven't you heard?
Once I've got health inspection under my belt, I hope to become free to check whether the load-bearing in the ceiling beams of my house and other buildings I enter are considered safe. In the olden days, we would call this "up to code" but when we're free we won't have pesky things like rules anymore.
When freedom comes to mean everything it actually means nothing at all. This is true of other words like "moral", "equal" and "fair." These complex and malleable topics are basically stand-ins to mean roughly, "something I think is really important and right and believe you should think that too."
Sadly, they don't lend any more explanatory power to our rhetoric than they do to that of our ideological opposites -- and they're not all that persuasive either. Because they contort themselves easily to the worldview they are asked to uphold and serve, they do very little by way of actually making or even bolstering real arguments.
It makes me angry when freedom is used to argue for de-regulation and shutting government out of the vital, life-affirming work I feel it exists to do. I feel equally betrayed when concepts like equality are used as justifications for a flat tax or to repeal the already piddling estate taxes currently in place. But I recognize that these are my definitions of "freedom" and "equality" at work and for someone else these vital concepts mean something very different, but equally profound and compelling.
It's not enough, then, to throw out big important laudable terms. Unless we define them and prove how they operate in service of our aims we aren't furthering the debate or our own cause. When it's opposite day long enough, it's very hard to keep track of what anyone means, even ourselves.
Anat Shenker-Osorio is an Oakland-based communications consultant.
*The name of this series derives from Frank Luntz’s book, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.