Politics and the English Language’s Failures




If I hear one more White person say “All lives matter”—and I am still hearing that, heard it just the other day—I will scream. Why the ruffled feathers? White lives have always mattered; that was never in question. Feel lucky.

But language matters, too, and we have been sloppy. Had we just added three letters, might it have made a difference in the reaction? “Black Lives Matter Too.” Done. No more arguments needed. No way to sputter or deny it. No rephrasing to steal the point.

As for “Defund the Police,” that was a colossal mistake. Why not “Reform the Police”? Or even “Help the Police,” for God’s sake, because the whole point was to bring in people trained to deal with the messier human complications and free the cops to do what they are trained to do, hopefully with less bigotry and frustrated rage.

Those phrases were themselves born in anger—a righteous anger, a well-justified anger. But when it seeped through the words, it provoked a defensive backlash this country did not need.

Why care? Why pamper entitled White folks who got miffed because they were not used to being brushed aside? And why not threaten defunding, when all anybody listens to in this nation is money?

Because the blowback interrupts any chance of real conversation. Instead of opening a way forward, it only deepens the gulf between us.

Speaking of moving forward, there is a new party by that name, and I am already worried. People need to be able to call themselves something when they ally with a group. The Forwarders? And is Forward so close to Progressive that the differences will blur? (I am told the point is moot; the single shared goal of Republicans and Democrats is blocking any third party from entering the circus. Libertarians will not care; their name was well chosen. But poor Republicans—most of us have long forgotten (or tried to forget) that the U.S. is a republic, not a flat-out democracy.

Thwarted, we return to semantics. Would the abortion wars have been fought more cleanly if we had been more specific: pro fetus’s rights versus pro mother’s rights? Are biases against liberals reinforced by the word itself, with its connotation of profligacy? And while we are speaking of connotations, does “atheist” too easily call to mind “amoral”?

Then there is the dread word “recession,” a charred potato people are tossing about without any agreed-upon definition. If we were not, in fact, already in one, we are now, because words scare us and behavior conforms to labels. As George Orwell points out in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” “an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.”

“It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language,” Orwell continues. “It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Or angry thoughts.

Anyone who has tried to wade through QAnon talk or anti-vax myths or paeans to Trump knows that specifics are dubious or nonexistent, and the only clarity is the sort that comes from yelling unintelligible words louder. Unfortunately, the language of academe (and other “elites”) can be just as hard to parse, and that has done their cause no service.

In the second half of the twentieth century, officials were nervous, so we resorted to euphemisms. Corporations saw this as a chance to soften the sound of greed. Exhausted by a blur of words signifying nothing, we grew lazy and stopped insisting on precision. Now we are pissed, and we toss out words as though they are grenades. But while it is easy to despise propagandists and PR types who buff up shiny phrases and slick up the “content,” we do need to think about the words we use. Often, we need new ones. No doubt there is an economic state that teeters on a recession but could have its own specific name, keeping the R-word offstage until it fits and reminding us that teetering means the economy could go in any direction.

Does all this sound like fanciful fuss? The words we speak influence how we see the world both figuratively and literally, psycholinguists tell us. Certain words even trigger involuntary eye movements.

In finance and government, words stick. In academe, jargon and excessive verbiage sticks. We are best at inventing language for issues or identities that are more personal. But new language often dictates new forms (which may be why it terrifies us). For example, now that we have shattered the binary of gender, why not organize sports teams by physical criteria, the way prizefights class bantam-weight and heavyweight? Maybe a high school does not have a Men’s team and a Women’s team, but teams organized by height and muscle mass.

As soon as you stop saying “men’s” and “women’s,” a lot of the fight goes out of the argument.

On the other hand, too much of our political language is rigged to take away a necessary fight. In 2002, Republican strategist Frank Luntz urged President George W. Bush to speak blandly of “climate change” and not use the ominous phrase “global warming.” “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate,” he wrote. And here we are, two decades later, hotter, faster than anyone predicted. “Climate crisis” was a helpful shift, but it came too late, and now we are mired in one.

We did get the promised “New Deal,” and at least the framework for a “Great Society.” But we never managed Barack Obama’s vaguer “New Foundation” (pundits said “it makes you think of a girdle”), and we sure as hell have not made America great again, whatever that even meant. At the nation’s inception, listeners knew exactly what John Winthrop meant by “A City on a Hill”—America as a beacon of hope for the rest of the world—and what the framers of the Constitution meant by every line. Do we have a clue what holds us together today?

Maybe hyphenating our identities was a bad idea. Maybe if we all simply called ourselves Americans (and nurtured our origins in other ways), it would have been harder to exclude and vilify?

Or maybe I am giving language too much credit. An impulsive compensation, for all the times we have given it too little.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.