Politics And The English Language — And Last Night’s Iowa Caucus

I’ve watched bunches of Republican presidential primary debates this season, but there was still something shocking about watching Michele Bachmann hunker down yet again and complain that Barack Obama’s policies are socialist. As I tweeted, watching her, words have meaning. Socialism and communism are real, definable things with clear boundaries and significances. They’re not words to be used lightly, if you care about having meaningful debates. And attempts to obscure meaning by distorting language, and attempts to make meaningful debate impossible should be things we get angry about. They should be disqualifying because they’re a means of facilitating deep and profound dishonesty. Michele Bachmann should be considered manifestly unqualified for the presidency of the United States because she has almost no qualifications for the position and no serious policy positions. But she should also be disqualified from serious consideration because she uses language in a way that is fundamentally dishonest and is an anathema to serious and difficult conversations about our country’s future.

Perhaps as a writer I am unusually prone to vexation on the subject of language. And maybe we collectively accept that our language is blurred in this way, and that the correct response to it is to pull out jokes from The Princess Bride about things not meaning what people think they mean. George Orwell pointed out that it’s always been a little square to talk about reclaiming language for clarity and honesty: “It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.” But I don’t believe culture is entirely a natural growth, and as a subset of that, I don’t believe political rhetoric and writing are either.

Tweeter Terry McMahon suggested that it would be nice if people — and I think this is true for rival candidates, reporters, and the public — started asking questions like what “socialist” means. If you’re going to use a word for political gain, if you’re going to use it as a weapon, you should be held responsible for what it means and your reasoning for using it.