How much do words matter?
“What happens when political language fails?”
The writer, former BBC director general Mark Thompson, offered an answer…:
“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.”
It’s not just fancy speechifying that’s gone missing in the United States these days. Even in conversation, even when answering questions, our politicians and their spokespeople lie with impunity. Words have often ceased to be meaningful indicators of reality—whether they emanate from the White House or from the Congress.
This administration and their Congressional enablers have done a great deal of damage to our country and to many people—especially the marginalized people—who live here. But it may be that the worst damage they have done is to our language.
Words matter. Or they should.
We can boot the lying bastards out of office—and this past Tuesday’s elections clearly showed that’s the direction we’re headed—but how can we reunite word and meaning?
It’s like sewing on Peter Pan’s shadow: the operation only works if you believe in it. And the problem here is that many people no longer believe what they hear.
In a blog post just before the inauguration, I wrote:
It’s a tough time to be a word person.
With people doubting even long-established facts, the very building blocks of a wordsmith’s trade threaten to become meaningless. It’s as if someone decided that instead of making bricks out of stone—or whatever bricks are made of—we’ll now make them out of papier-mâché and pretend it’s the same thing.
You can stand there shouting about engineering and the immutable laws of nature until you’re blue in the face. But you’re not going to reach the people who’ve decided that facts don’t matter. Until, perhaps, their papier-mâché chimneys go up in smoke.
Oh, who am I kidding? When that happens, they’ll just blame the logs.
Don’t shout. Listen. And Talk.
Shouting won’t help anything. But listening will. And talking face to face, heart to heart.
Conversations won the elections for Democrats last Tuesday, as tens of thousands of people canvassed for their candidates. One activist on a recent episode of Pod Save America said that supporters of Planned Parenthood had knocked on over 300,000 doors in Virginia in recent weeks. And let’s not forget the people across the country who worked the phone banks, calling voters to find out and address their concerns.
Those conversations worked. And we have to keep having them, and expand the circles of people we reach.
I quoted Neil Gaiman in that “it’s a tough time to be a word person” post.
He said “Words are more important they ever were” because “We navigate the world with words” and
“People who cannot understand each other cannot communicate.”
And people who cannot communicate cannot fix what’s broken about our democracy.
So get talking. Because words matter.