I don’t know when this started happening — maybe it’s been happening all along and I just didn’t notice until recently — but Americans have code words and pass phrases that are intended to signal one’s political beliefs. It was when I was visiting my aged mother in California that I finally understood what was going on.
My mother lives in a retirement community where the residents are mostly White people who are politically conservative and go to church regularly (“Christian” in some circles).
My mom introduced me to some of her neighbors and the usual questions were asked of me: Where do you live? Do you have children? What do you do for a living?
At some point in the conversation, one of them asked me whether I thought there was too much regulation in this country. Keep in mind that I read and interpret federal and state regulations for a living, so I thought that they were legitimately asking my professional opinion on the topic.
So I said “It depends — California is a highly regulated state.” I was about to ask whether there was some regulation that they had in mind that they thought was a step too far, but this person dropped the topic entirely and the subject was changed.
In the moment, I found this curious. But later I realized what had happened: I had not passed the test.
If I had said “Yes, there is too much regulation” then I would have been accepted as one of them. Since I didn’t do that — since I wanted to actually talk about the topic instead of using it to signal my belief system — they realized I was not one of them and they didn’t therefore want to have anything more to do with me (“Christians,” remember).
In other words, “too much regulation” is a shibboleth.
A shibboleth is a password used to test someone’s identity. If the question is answered correctly or incorrectly, or if the right code words are used or not used, then identity confirmed! No more discussion required. No need to spend anyone’s time probing further into why people have the views they do. If you’re not part of the clan, then you’re no longer interesting or safe.
There are several shibboleths in play right now, in addition to “too much regulation,” that are used to signal one’s conservative politics:
- political correctness
- identity politics
- pro life
- voter fraud
- gay agenda
- affirmative action
- government handout
- all lives matter
- parents’ rights (or parental rights)
- government is the enemy
These words and phrases have been almost entirely stripped of any true meaning and have instead become buzzwords and code.
In other words, one cannot use any of these phrases to in good faith talk about the actual underlying issues because their meaning is now tainted by the underlying associations. It is similar to how the swastika used to be just a Hindu design motif. But now any use of the swastika in any context will immediately represent Nazism, Hitler, and the slaughter of millions of Jews.
If you come across any of these words or phrases, beware. An agenda lies beneath whatever the speaker claims to be saying. And it’s not an agenda of inclusion.
And if you want to in good faith use, for instance, “identity” in the same sentence as “politics” then be very careful how you approach that. You may accidentally be signaling that you are a Trump supporter.
It’s interesting to note that the word “shibboleth” comes from a Bible story (Judges 12: 1- 6). The story is that the Gileadites used the word as a pass code to figure out who was from Gilead and which people were Ephraimites, the enemy du jour. The Ephraimites could not pronounce the word correctly and thus were outed as being not from Gilead. Once outed, they were killed. “Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.” (Judges 12:6).
Pretty harsh for a sacred book that allegedly is about the love of God.
And what can be said about conservatives? There once was a concept of “compassionate conservatism.” But as I look around, I don’t see much compassion for those who don’t pass the test. Instead, the wagons are circled, discourse is cut off, and lives are dismissed.
Not very Christian.