The war over words

Politicians have always sought the power to control the meaning of language. But now this open warfare has raced past reprehensible to dangerous for democracy.

By Denny Wilkins

In the vicious descent to American unexceptionalism that politicians and their rich supporters are hellbent on winning (common folk and consequences be damned), politics has become a continuing chase for the authority to control language.

That’s what modern power has become: the ability to define a word, and to prevent others from doing so. Politicians rarely make coherent arguments anymore; they instead try to co-opt the meanings of words. That’s why debates have been nonsensical: Candidates may utter the same words, but the meanings they assign to those words are vastly different.

In “Politic and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse.

Remember when Republicans fiercely and arrogantly obstructed President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court? This blatant, constitutionally ignorant use of power was amplified by GOP threats to not allow a vote on any nominee put forth by a potential President Hillary Clinton. So incensed Democrats heatedly cried foul.

Welcome to the war over the word justice. GOP politicians obstruct the constitutional processes of government by any means possible until they have gained the power to define the word justice. But Democrats have their meaning of justice. And they, too, have their own history of obstruction. So who will control the meaning of justice?

Consider today’s “support the police” politicians and the “defund the police” movement. Is it likely they have the same definition of justice?

That’s politics today. Use massive amounts of money and the power it obtains to capture an ideological definition of justice. Then stack federal courts to fit that definition.

Consider the word crooked. Former president Donald Trump captured the definition of that word long ago. It now means Hillary Clinton. In modern politics, if an ideologue shouts a word long enough, loud enough, and often enough into the modern media megaphone, that ideologue assigns her or his preferred meaning to that word.

Consider immigration. Is it defined as meaningful opportunity for those abroad that refuels the American melting pot? Or is it defined as an external threat to American jobs and waning whiteness?

Pick any word tossed about by politicians during modern election cycles. Immigration. War. Peace. White. Black. Refugee. Terrorist. Liberal. Conservative. Hero. Traitor. These words have become battlegrounds in the rush to attain and maintain political power.

Simple aphoristic phrases have devolved into linguistic battlegrounds. Your favorite politician tells you this: “I just want to do what’s right for the American people.”

Look at those words. Right. American. People.

Who defines right? The winners do. Who defines American? The winners do. Who defines people? The winners do. Winners rule, because negotiation and compromise are defined in modern politics as weakness instead of cooperation.

The power to define words translates into the power to define and target policy — about a woman’s right to choose; a Muslim’s right to practice her religion publicly without fear; a gay person’s right to marry; a college graduate’s hope for a life without crushing student debt; a transgender person’s right to choose a bathroom; a journalist’s right to do her job without fear of government interference; a shop owner’s need to unburden herself from regulatory red tape; a child’s right to an education unhindered by slews of standardized tests; a sick woman’s right to decent, affordable health care; the right of an innocent man in the Mideast to not die from American weapons; a veteran’s right to timely health care; a union member’s right to have her contract honored instead of breached willy-nilly by her employer; a hunter’s right to his weapon; and an elderly man’s right to unfettered Social Security benefits.

One definition of a word can provide hope to a nation; another can instill fear of either tyranny or the other.

Politicians know this. So they use words as cudgels, depending on their ideology and their hold on power.

All this fuels my continued anger and sadness at the degenerating structure of American governance and its resultant impact on so many of us. But the fault does not fall solely on politicians.

Too many people who listen to either red or blue candidates hear certain words shouted repeatedly by those candidates. Too many people cannot — or willfully do not — critically inspect how candidates define those words. That’s to listeners’ detriment, no matter who their candidates are.

Words matter. The power to assign meaning to a word matters. When I ask my sophomores what a noun is, they reply (sometimes), “Oh, it’s a person, place, or thing.” I must remind them a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing.

That means a politician can point to a desperate twenty-something Syrian man and his wife and children seeking entry to America and call them terrorists instead of refugees.

That means a politician can point to person with a gun and call him (or her) a domestic terrorist instead of a legal owner of a firearm.

That means politicians can shame opponents as either libruls or wingnuts.

Words matter. The ability to define a thing is a highly prized political power, and it should not be assigned to just any Republican, Green, Democratic, Libertarian or Whatever Party candidate for office. Candidates’ linguistic bona fides should be critically examined by the electorate.

Voters must determine whether candidates they support can wisely and fairly assign meaning to words such as welfare recipient or border security or Social Security or free trade or campaign finance reform or union contract or foreign policy. Add climate change, checks and balances, constitutional responsibility, and taxation to the list of words voters should be sure their candidates will define with competence.

But critical inspection of candidates by voters has become increasingly rare.

Is it because the American system of educating its children, teenagers, and young adults is deeply flawed? Is it because that system, for at least two generations, has been so overly focused on teacher accountability and assessment that it has overlooked rigorous training in critical thinking and creativity? That learning to read for wisdom and depth of vocabulary has waned? (Yes, these italicized words have been political battlegrounds for several decades as politicians sought to control their definitions.)

Multiply that by members of a few generations who have come to believe, through endless thumb-typing, that instant access to Google is an adequate replacement for critical thought and reflection?

Too many Americans may fail to recognize that the despicable morass besetting national races has filtered down ballot to statehouse and gubernatorial races. That means they’re not seeing the linguistic training wheels (funded by big donor money) of the next generation of libruls and wingnuts.

Americans don’t just elect presidents. Americans must elect 34 members of the Senate, 435 members of the House, 12 governors, nearly 6,000 state legislators, and countless local officials for city councils, school boards, planning boards, finance committees, and many others. Oh, yes: Americans will elect judges, too, who can choose how to define freedom and imprisonment.

No matter who wins, the political war over who defines words and how will intensify. As long as education in America takes a backseat to political jousting, voters will be unlikely to take back from politicians the authority to assign meaning to words.

Denny Wilkins is a professor in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University.

Categories: Jandoli Institute, Media, Politics, Uncategorized

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