Words have consequences. And those of us who use words—whether we write them or speak them—must take responsibility for what we say.
Language only remains meaningful if we use it in integrity, but that has become increasingly rare, across the political spectrum. The orange-faced politician tells his supporters to monitor polling places “in certain areas”—and everyone understands that to mean areas that aren’t likely to vote Orange. And twenty years ago, a Democrat taught us to distrust even the simplest words. The truth, he famously said—under oath!—”depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.”
Once upon a time, facts could stop an argument. Now a muttered “Not true” will neutralize any issue—even if there’s documentary evidence. Yes, you did say that, sir, and here’s the videotape. We’ve been playing games with language for too long; the linguistic chickens are coming home to roost.
A few months ago, The Guardian published an article that asked:
“What happens when political language fails?”
The writer, former BBC director general Mark Thompson, offered an answer that gives me chills:
“From the fall of Athens to the rise of totalitarianism, observers from Thucydides to George Orwell have associated a breakdown in public language – or rhetoric, to give it a more traditional name – with the failure of democracy, loss of freedom, civil strife and, ultimately, tyranny and murder.”
The headline on Thompson’s piece promises to examine how the breakdown of rhetoric contributed to the Brexit vote in the U.K. and to the rise of Donald Trump (thusfar) in the U.S. But English is not the only language in which “rhetoric” has gotten a bad name. Thompson notes that politicians routinely
“…deny that they were in the rhetoric business at all. If they mention the word, it is only in the context of the detested public language of the establishment. ‘If there’s one thing I can’t abide it’s rhetoric,’ that Trump-before-the-fact Silvio Berlusconi once remarked. ‘I’m only interested in what needs to get done.’
Italians actually elected Berlusconi—he served nine years as prime minister despite having significant ongoing legal problems, and possibly even ties to the Mafia. He also has an eye for the ladies, but—hey!—at least he’s honest about his hair: no comb-over. Read more about this political paragon here.
The consequences of rhetoric abuse
But back to rhetoric. Thompson writes,
“One of the advantages of noisily rejecting any notion of rhetoric is that, once listeners are convinced you’re not trying to deceive them in the manner of regular politicians, they may switch off the critical faculties they usually apply to political speech and forgive you any amount of exaggeration, contradiction or offensiveness. And, if rivals or the establishment media then point this out, your supporters may dismiss it as spin.”
The passage I boldfaced just horrifies me. The consequences of abusing rhetoric appear to be that there are no consequences to abusing rhetoric. The more people candidates lie or ignore facts, the less people come to care. But don’t take my word for it; listen to an actual voter:
“Here is Florida voter Yolanda Esquivel, quoted by the BBC in November 2015, rejecting criticism of Trump for his outspokenness: ‘I’m looking at what candidates can do, not the picky little things they say that people want to make a big deal of.'”
Like the lady says, it’s about what candidates do, not what they say. But by definition non-incumbent candidates can only talk; the doing can’t begin until after the election.
We can’t talk our way out of this
If they can’t use words, how can candidates convey specifics about what they have not yet done, but want to do? I ask as a citizen, not as someone who creates the dreaded Rhetoric for a living.
If speeches don’t work, what will? Because we need something that does. I mean, assuming we want to avoid the fate Thompson says awaits us. Remember? I quoted it at the beginning of the article—”failure of democracy, loss of freedom, civil strife and, ultimately, tyranny and murder.”
People who believe words mean nothing close themselves off to new sources of information. How do we then change their perceptions of the world? How can we right the sinking ship of state and find the civility we need to make democracy work?
Words got us into this mess. What in the world can get us out of it?