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Good Words, Bad Words

In 1942, the Supreme Court defined something called "fighting words," words whose utterance could incite to riot. A unanimous court upheld the conviction of a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, who, in an altercation with a hostile crowd in Rochester, N.H., called them "God-damned fascists, racketeers."

Time now to suggest a new concept of "fought-over words," words that adversaries in national debate try to capture. An example is "choice," which liberals have latched onto in the abortion debate, and conservatives in the school debate.

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Or take the word "rights." "Civil rights," two words that resonate well with Americans, applied to the cause of righting wrongs against minorities. Not to be confused with "civil liberties," also two good words, applying to freedoms for all Americans.

Under civil rights there is "desegregation," favored by most, and "integration," which is less popular. "Discrimination" has become a bad word, although it was once considered elegant to have discriminating taste.

WHAT set me to thinking about all this was President Clinton's encounter with conservative writer Abigail Thernstrom at the much-advertised Akron town meeting.

She said Americans believe in affirmative action, but not in preferences. He interrupted to point to Colin Powell as a product of military affirmative action. Mr. Clinton would have been on firmer ground if he had said Mr. Powell had benefited from a far-sighted Army program of equal opportunity.

Powell himself wrote in his memoirs that he had benefited from Army equal opportunity and affirmative action, but was not shown any preference. That may only compound the semantic confusion. A lot of current litigation hinges on whether affirmative action necessarily establishes preferences.

But, notice that, for a majority of Americans, "equal opportunity" is in, "preferences" are out, and "affirmative action" is still a casus belli. That's what I mean by "fought-over words."

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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