There are many lessons that must be learned from the most recent election cycle. Among them is that we must pay more attention to the role of language in our politics. We have made words slave to our politics. Words are simply another tool in the political toolbox, carrying no value except political efficiency.
In one of its more subtle forms, the denigration of language looks like words much more often being used to signal things, rather than mean things. Language has become tribal. Political speech is used to identify oneself with a certain ideology, group, or institution.
We have become used to listening for these signals. Phrases like “common-sense gun reform,” “comprehensive immigration reform,” “securing the border,” and “being tough on Wall Street,” among an endless list of others, are all used not because of what they actually mean, but what they signal. “Common sense gun reform,” for instance, could describe any number of postures and policies depending on how one defines “common sense.” But the listener has been trained not to care about what this phrase actually means, or that others might interpret it differently, but simply that it has been said. It is an acknowledgement that the speaker is on a certain team and is worthy of trust.
The disregard of language has also taken more dramatic forms. During this presidential election we saw an extreme disregard when defenders of one candidate argued that words didn’t matter, only actions. Although yes, there is a difference between word and deed, the line between the two is more complicated than a simple distinction. In a sense, words are action. Words name, declare, describe, bear witness, etc. To act like words don’t have any bearing on reality is ridiculous.
Treating words frivolously is a dangerous road to go down. When words used simply to describe an event are even rendered inconsequential, we have completely forfeited our ability to communicate in the world. It is a post-modern understanding of language in its most crude and extreme form—reality is only what I say it to be. There is no actual reality to the world that my words must attest to, that they will be measured against. Reality is only what I say it is.
This utter disregard of the weight and creative ability of words has no roots in a Christian theology or tradition. As Christians, we are people of the Word made flesh. We see throughout scripture that both humans and God give shape to reality through words. God creates, declares good, and communicates to His people with words. He empowers Adam to name the animals, to speak truthfully about the order of Being. In the New Testament, we see the power of words in the preaching of the Good News throughout the world. Words name, create, and shape the world around us. When it comes to politics, it is vital that we recover a responsibility to language.
Some of the best modern political examples of this are the speeches of Václav Havel. The Czech philosopher and playwright was a political dissident under Communist rule and was instrumental in the Velvet Revolution, which toppled Communism in Czechoslovakia. He then found himself elected as the first president of Czechoslovakia. He struggled with the tension of being an artist serving in politics, but saw it as a creative tension rather than a destructive one. He refused to sacrifice truth and beauty on the altar of political expediency. In fact, he considered them integral pieces of politics.
Politics did not consume his words. Rather he used language to provide insight into politics, recognizing that politics is intended to serve our common life, not the other way around. Consider the following from his address to the US Congress in 1990: “In other words, we still don’t know how to put morality ahead of politics, science, and economics. We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine core of all our actions—if they are to be moral—is responsibility. Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success. Responsibility to the order of Being, where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where, and only where, they will be properly judged.” Compare this to the rhetoric of the 2016 election cycle and one realizes the poverty of our own political discourse.
Of course we are not all philosophers and playwrights whose careers are dedicated to crafting words. In fact, a congress or city council filled with Havels might even be a bit insufferable. However, what we can take away from Havel is the possibility that political discourse can be true and beautiful, that it can attest to reality and the order of Being. To begin to climb out of the pit of political mud we are currently rolling around in, it must do these things. In a time when our politics must be reimagined, turning our attention to the power of language is an important first step.
How might we begin to do this? I will offer three suggestions.
First, recognizing the ability of words to shape our perception of the world, and therefore our actions, we must pay attention to the words that we are consuming, especially in the realm of politics. We need to expose ourselves to folks who use words with care. Read a classic novel. Read political speeches such as Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address or the speeches of Vaclav Havel. Ask thoughtful people who you respect what they are reading and who they are listening to? It is easy to listen to the loudest, most outraged voices, but these voices are rarely the ones demonstrating the type of care for language that our politics requires.
Second, part of the reason that words in our political discourse are rarely treated with the care that they demand is that we as citizens have incentivized the poor use of language. We demand simple answers for complex questions. Our politicians and news media are ultimately accountable to us, the citizen and constituent. We must begin recognizing and withholding our vote from politicians who rely on platitudes and clichés that ring true only among people who think, act, and look like us. We must begin withholding our viewership and clicks from media that pander to our biases and preference entertainment over education.
Third, we must make the effort to speak this way ourselves. We must care for words in our own lives. When speaking about people who you disagree with, speak generously of them. Contend with people’s best arguments rather than fighting straw men. Pay attention to the stories you are sharing on social media. Are you posting something simply out of anger and disbelief or because it is a constructive voice that people need to hear? Be specific in your communication and avoid platitudes.
Our current political moment feels overwhelming, but paying attention to language is a practical step that we can take right now. A culture of people who participate together in the care of words is one that might be able to face our political moment honestly and find a way through the noise.
-Andrew Whitworth is a recent graduate of Taylor University and alumni of the Trinity Fellows Academy. He lives in DC working to build flourishing political communities.