In Politics, Words Matter

There is a problem in politics. This problem is global and affects both the left and the right, and to be honest independents as well. We have to talk about it – which is ironic really. After all, this is a problem of language.

Some people reading this might naturally assume I am speaking about English, but I’m not. Well, not only at least. I’ll be making the argument in English, but what I’m about to describe happens in every other language too, because the root of the problem is human nature, not culture.

Here’s a question: what do you think when I say “government”?

To most people, its an organisation, in many ways like Google or Nike. The government employs people and generally tries to make decisions it thinks will ensure the success of the administration. The stakeholders and the hiring process might be different, but the concept is the same: an exogenous entity that exerts control on people, and that must be constantly monitored, or it will seek to enrich its members at the expense of wider society

Other people – myself included – tend to think of government as a process, much like justice. While there are many court cases that capture the attention of the press, problems are generally discussed in terms of systemic issues, rather than individual judge’s faults. It’s not that I don’t think who is in power matters. Sure enough, an organisation is charged with executing the process, and it’s important they execute their mandate well. But the focus of the word is how the system makes people come together to arrive at a decision rather than the collection of people who, at any one time, might call the shots.

You could argue Government fits both descriptions. You’d be correct but missing the point. The point is what someone hears in conversation when you use the word.

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Do you see what I’m getting at yet? Let’s try another. What do you think when I say lobbyist?

It’s a pretty charged word. Most people immediately imagine a corporate suit, amoral and elitist, schmoozing the powerful, drinking Pinot Noir and perverting democracy. Very few people would include in their image the advocates who lobby for organisations like Green Peace and Amnesty International because, you know, lobbyists are supposed to be corporate evil personified.

We could go on all day. Media. Politicians. Any word you’ve heard people precede with “The problem is the…” And the question is, who exactly are they talking about? I’m not sure I know. I don’t think the speakers do either. I never tire of screaming at my computer screen when I’m watching some clip of Fox news and they talk about the “mainstream media”. Sean Hannity, the most famous Fox news host at this point and an untiring supporter of American president Donald Trump, loves to use the term, seemingly oblivious to the fact that as the second most watched news host in America he might rightfully be included in that group.

They invariably talk about the group like an anti-Semite might talk about “the Jews”: a shadowy cabal in control of the world, perverting democracy, etc etc. A few key figures are named, exemplars of the evil of this group, but the definition is always left vague enough to add more later.

In the age of texting and emoticons, arguing that language is important might seem debatable, even passé. It shouldn’t be. We are now having arguments in 280 characters and 10 second soundbites, so if anything, it matters more which words you use. It matters if you know what they mean. It matters if people understand them.

If you’re thinking about that friend of yours who’s got a penchant for conspiracy theories you’re right, but you should probably look in the mirror too. It’s a problem with pretty much everyone, yours truly included. If you’re into arguing politics, you’ve probably heard yourself making some banal statement like “people need to come together” or “have an open-heart”, or “be tolerant”. Tolerance is a particular peeve of mine. People use it because it makes them feel good. They’ve always heard it used in a good way, and it’s pretty close to what they want to say, so out it comes in every immigration debate you’ll hear on TV. But it’s clear most people haven’t thought it. In reality, it hurts their argument. Tolerance is, at its root, condescending.  Societies shouldn’t tolerate immigrants and refugees: they should accept them. If you are an internationalist and believe in the power of agreements and conventions, then it’s not a matter of tolerance. Tolerance implies that it’s only out of the kindness of your heart that you don’t put a stop to it, when, in reality, we should be talking about the right of people to seek out the best future for themselves and their families. I don’t expect everyone will be convinced by this argument, nor will some people stop using their favourite word, but it’s something to think about.

If I’m coming across as pedantic, well, you may have a point there. But hear my warning: when words become meaningless we stray into the world of madmen. Our ability to articulate abstract concepts and ideas clearly to another person is what separates us from the beasts. So what can you do? Be meticulous in the words you use. Define, define and define. Try to be as specific as possible when talking about the problems you see in society. And don’t assume you know what people mean. In most cases, it’s best to ask. You’ll probably be surprised.

 

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