I was recently awoken from a Zyrtec-induced (allergies are the worst) stupor in my American Revolution seminar class when I heard my professor make an off-handed comment about “magic words.” Having recently spent an undisclosed number of hours watching multiple Harry Potter movies, I assumed that he was referring to words like “Wingardium Leviosa” shouted with a swish and flick of a magic wand. Needless to say, I was a little off. The magic words he meant have probably never echoed through the halls of Hogwarts, yet they have become unbelievably common in our cultural vernacular.

What my professor meant was words like “feminism,” “social justice,” and “fair share;” words whose meanings are perpetually twisted and stretched to fit a political agenda. Substantially speaking, these words are nothing more than fluff. They rely not on rationality, but on emotion. “Feminism” invokes feelings of female empowerment; “social justice,” feelings of equality and solidarity. For me, the words “fair share” usually evoke anger and frustration because of the common misuse of the phrase, but those “magic words” are intended also to invoke feelings of fairness and equality. While these “magic words” or broader—“magical thinking” are useful during campaign speeches, on holidays, or at memorials, when applied to public policy, they take a far more sinister turn.

When “magical thinking” invades the political arena, tensions are sure to ensue. Often, one side, either right or left, will hijack a word or phrase and claim that their definition is absolute. For example, “feminism” is commonly associated with liberal ideology. However, what does feminism actually mean? Here’s where the magic comes in. Feminism is commonly defined as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” Sounds good, right? However, once an ideology grasps onto a “magic” word like feminism, its meaning changes entirely. For the National Organization of Women, feminism encompasses the idea of “reproductive rights,” and supports the full legalization of abortion. However, Sarah Palin has advocated for an emerging “conservative feminism,” which includes traditional family values and a pro-life agenda. Which side’s version of “feminism” is correct?  In short, both of them and neither of them. That’s the magic of “feminism.” Slap on your own definition of feminism and bang, you’re a “feminist.” However, I can’t say it’s accurate to put Sarah Palin in the same category as Gloria Steinem.

“Magical thinking” is commonly associated with the words “social justice” and “fair share” as well. Social justice certainly paints a picture of serene equality and national solidarity, but in action, it often manifests itself as something quite different. The left-leaning Sojourners magazine portrays social justice as a concept of equality which encompasses positions like amnesty for illegal immigrants and affirmative action. I’m all for justice, but I can’t say I support either of those two positions. However, that doesn’t mean I’m for social “injustice.” Based upon the nature of “magical thinking,” the answer might be yes, depending on who you ask. The phrase “fair share” works the same way. I will personally shell out $10,000 to anyone who can give me a universal definition of fair share.  Fair share is a concept defined both relatively and individually. It essentially means whatever the person saying it decides it to mean. For Occupy Wall Street, fair share means a massive tax increase for the “1%.” However, more conservative Americans tend to believe that our progressive tax system is unfairly targeting the rich and instead, the bottom 50% of taxpayers (or non-taxpayers, as the case may be) are not paying their fair share. Again, I’ll ask the question, whose definition is correct? It is impossible to tell. This sort of magical thinking makes consensus and rational debate all but impossible.

“Magic words” are bipolar. What I mean is, if your definition of a magic word does not align with that of another person, then you must be “wrong” and they must be “right,” or vice versa. If you’re against the liberal conception of feminism, well then you must hate women. Uneasy about social justice? You must, therefore, support injustice. If your concept of “fair share” is too small, then you must hate the poor. It’s a vicious cycle, but one to be expected. “Magic words” have to power to induce brief euphoria, but fade quickly when actual policies come into play. This makes political debate all but impossible. How can you possibly argue against amnesty for illegal immigrants when your opponent labels it “social justice?” Sure, you can bring up solid facts and a rational argument, but it’s still impossible to escape the accusation that you are “against” social justice. That’s the true power of these “magic words.” Bring them up in an argument and you’ve won, regardless of whether your facts are accurate or your points logical. Who wants to argue against fairness, equality, or even freedom for that matter? Magical thinking and magic words must stay where they belong on the campaign trail and in holiday speeches, where a politician’s main goal is to invoke passion or create solidarity. When it comes to deciding public policy or arguing the facts in a political debate, leave the magic words at the door. Progression is all but impossible if we are not able to rely on reason and facts instead of meaningless words and “magical” thinking.

Amy Lutz | Saint Louis University | Saint Louis, Missouri | @AmyLutz4