Abusing words takes away their true value

It’s a painfully obvious truth that the words we use reveal a lot about our thinking. Like using “socialist” when we’re not talking about socialists, or “fascist” when we’re not really talking about fascists. Or saying “sectarian conflict” instead of “civil war.” Or casually dropping the word “faggot” into a political speech.

Guest columnists on the News’ Opinion page, spokesmen for the Bush administration and Ann Coulter might not seem to have a whole lot in common, but all of them contribute (in some way) to the growing volume of publicly available speech. An avalanche of words and phrases says less and less even as it grows exponentially larger. Every time language is abused — by a politician, or an opinion-maker, an athlete or a blogger — the words we use mean a little bit less.

Before the Internet, before the 24-hour cable news cycle, before the media asked athletes and celebrities to weigh in on the issue of the day, most Americans received news and opinion from one or two newspapers. In the early days of America, the now-canonical Federalist Papers were published in New York’s newspapers as part of a give-and-take debate about the ratification of the Constitution. Open an editorial page today and you’ll find Maureen Dowd talking about Barack Obama’s feminine side or the Wall Street Journal calling for a Libby pardon. Hardly the sort of material that would be read in a future Directed Studies program.

Bloggers, political “commentators” like Coulter and professional athletes lower the bar even further. Ex-NBA player Tim Hardaway was roundly (and rightly) criticized for his homophobic comments following former center John Amaechi’s book about being a closeted gay player in the NBA. Philadelphia 76ers forward Shavlik Randolph should have been laughed out of the league for his “don’t bring your gayness on me” comment, but unfortunately we’ve become so accustomed to hearing this sort of inaccurate, paranoid nonsense that we hardly batted an eye.

We can still muster outrage when Coulter comes out of nowhere with a homophobic slur against John Edwards. We can show disgust at Joe Biden’s antiquated paternalism and make him a marginal candidate before primary season even starts. We can vote George Allen out of office for his “macaca” comment. But where’s the outrage when the words we use aren’t blatantly homophobic, or racist, or over-the-top-insensitive? Why can’t we tell opinion-makers that it’s not OK to use words that turn an apparently straightforward statement into a mess of lies, mischaracterizations and fiction?

Bill Clinton was great at subtly tweaking and stretching the meanings of words. He could say “I did not have sex with that woman” and later dodge a perjury charge. Too bad he came from the wrong decade. Bill Clinton’s verbal yoga got him a grand jury investigation, an impeachment and a whole lot of vitriol. Then we must have gotten tired, because we allowed George W. Bush to pass middle-class tax cuts that didn’t help much of anyone in the middle class, a No Child Left Behind act that left quite a few children behind, and an energy reform bill that reformed our energy policy to make it more corporate-friendly.

It’s not just the Bush administration. Think about how many utterly meaningless phrases get used in the public sphere. “Immigration reform”? It’s been used to justify everything from building a wall to blanket amnesty. Everyone supports immigration reform because Americans seem inclined to vote for someone who wants to fix our problems. Candidates, conveniently, can be “pro-immigration reform” without needing the slightest policy on the matter. Same with “health-care reform” and “Social Security reform.”

Our political language has reached a point where we can say almost anything we want and later twist and stretch our words so we can hide behind them. We’re so overexposed to factually ignorant opinions shouted at full volume that the words have become meaningless. This is a dangerous position. It’s past time that we start holding public figures accountable for the words they say, the facts they use and the ideas they support.

Xan White is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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