Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Words Matter

In one of the best essays that I have ever read, George Orwell, in 1946 wrote, in Politics and the English Language:

"Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. 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. The point is that the process is reversible."

As an intellectual and a cultural elitist (that's right - get your rotten tomatoes ready) I feel Orwell's call to, essentially, pull our minds from the mud by way of our words. Even in my own career practice, acting, I've learned recently how using certain vocabulary belies a specific kind of understanding (or belies little understanding at all) of certain topics.

Susan Jacoby, who I've blogged about before, wrote a book called
The Age of American Unreason. I have yet to read this book in its entirety, but the first chapter addresses the issue of language in our politics in very clear, easy to understand, AMERICAN terms. I highly reccomend you read it here.

She talks about Former President Bush's all-encompassing use of the word
"folks." "Folks", Jacoby argues, as opposed to "Ladies and Gentlemen" or "The American People" degrades the American sense of self. I know, I know, look at me spouting off my grandiloquent and confusing intellectual, elitist philosophies here, but hang with me - I'll try my best not use too big of words (aside from grandiloquent.)

"The specific political use of folks as an exclusionary and inclusionary signal, designed to make the speaker sound like one of the boys or girls, is symptomatic of a debasement of public speech inseparable from a more general erosion of American cultural standards. Casual, colloquial language also conveys an implicit denial of the seriousness of whatever issue is being debated: talking about folks going off to war is the equivalent of describing rape victims as girls (unless the victims are, in fact, little girls and not grown women.)"

So, folks aside, let's move on to a few other political words that have become meaningless: democracy, liberal, conservative, and my personal favorite, and the point of this blog: terror - specifically The War on Terror.

How, pray tell, does one fight a War on Terror? And who can debate anyone the fact that Terror is bad and therefore we must fight said War on Terror? It can't be done, but the fact is, it is rhetorically empty and meaningless, which is exactly what our politicians would like, because then the War on Terror can be used to justify anything (Iraq, anyone?)

So you can understand how my intellectual, elitist heart jumped for joy when, while watching Anderson Cooper interview President Obama, they had this exchange:

ANDERSON: "I've noticed you don't use the term 'War on Terror.'...Is that conscience? Is there something about that term that you find objectionable or not useful?"

OBAMA: "Well, I think it is very important for us to recognize that we have a battle, or a war, against some terrorist organizations; but that those organizations aren't representative of a broader Arab community, Muslim community. Words matter in this situation because one of the ways we're going to win this struggle is through the battle of hearts and minds. What I want to do is make sure that I'm constantly talking about 'Al Queda' and other affliated organizations because we, I believe, can win over moderate Muslims, to recognize that that kind of destruction and nihilism ultimately leads to a dead end, and that we should be working together to make sure that everybody's got a better life."

If I wasn't already swooning over Cooper and Obama in the same room, then this really got me going. Orwell would be so proud. We should all be so proud.

Even if you don't quite understand it, that's okay - there's a good chance, now, that someday you will.

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