In other words, the squad’s response was absurd and had no connection to any commonly agreed upon standard of reality. No one on Earth can possibly believe that Barack Obama doesn’t care about gun violence, racism, or human suffering. What the fight was really about—as both Pressley and AOC observed—was language. Obama was questioning the political expediency of theirs, and they were policing his. He was interested in rhetoric; they were interested in mounting the “You can’t say that” defense.

How has it come to this, to a national conversation on urgent matters being reduced to what Wittgenstein would have called “language games”? How could one man making a simple assertion about realpolitik be so wildly—willfully—misinterpreted? Because when the inside joke of critical theory escaped the English department grad-student lounge and kudzu-ed its way all over campus, it convinced several generations that human experience can be understood only in terms of who is powerful and who is oppressed. It was all fun and games when every undergraduate was unpacking this and deconstructing that, but it upended the way language can be used and understood.

The powerful—say, a former president—can have their words listened to and taken at face value. They want all the free speech they can get. The oppressed are forced to play a very different language game. The reason that so many people interpreted Obama’s comments as an attack was that “Defund the police” is a phrase with shifting meanings.