The Lazy Language of Politics

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To say that Americans are divided over politics is to give too much credit to the substantive merits of the role of ideas in the formation of public opinion and not enough to the erosion of the language through which such ideas are discussed. 

We have learned from a generation of apologists of linguistic equivocation that language possesses the ability not only to shape our view of ideas, but, for many, the ability to change the very nature of the ideas themselves.  As is evident from countless judicial opinions issued by federal courts over the last century, language can be used as a vehicle to transform ideas while simultaneously obviating the need to confront basic philosophical predicates.  It is often easier to hide behind tired old slogans than to discuss raw concepts and debate first principles.

Cultural critic Richard M. Weaver famously argued that “ideas have consequences,” but it is increasingly apparent that the medium through which ideas are expressed is under siege.  Language itself has lost its place of authority under the pressure of subjectivity and relativism.  But does this erosion of language represent a larger corrosion of the spiritual and intellectual values that have sustained the West for over a millennium?   

I believe the evidence is overwhelming that the paucity of sophisticated political discourse is tied to our dependence upon clichés and trite phraseology.  “Resist,” “no justice, no peace,” “fair share,” and other rallying cries represent a small fraction of the hapless expressions thrown around by activists and pundits.  They serve us poorly and distract from the true merits of important questions.

In a society that denies the reality of existential truth, and where relativism is the most coveted of virtues, calls for resistance and justice must fall on deaf ears, as neither term can possess enough positive content for them to mean anything at all.  When “truth” is as deep as the isolated musings of the coffee shop philosopher, it cannot reflect ultimate reality.  It follows that conversation regarding “truth” must escalate to screaming, cordial disagreement becomes impossible, and every individual’s opinion is entitled to the same deference granted to holy writ.  When everyone’s private conception of truth is sacrosanct, truth itself cannot be the measure of morality, justice, or freedom.  But one thing is certain:  in its place rises an uncompromising, brutish power that permits no dissent.

By accepting responsibility for our part in allowing this raw power to gain a hold on culture, we must confront the reality that a degeneration of our political language has exacerbated the tensions arising within the culture wars.  When we speak in political clichés, accept “talking points” as arguments, and acquiesce to so-called “spin,” we encourage the growth of this ever-burgeoning, anonymous power that serves nothing but itself.   We find it increasingly impossible to come to a consensus on anything because the language of politics has itself become circular, subjective, and meaningless.  Nothing is left but division, fear, and hate.  We are entrenched with our ideological allies, but those allegiances are often frail and built upon little more than media soundbites and superficial interests.    

In the absence of linguistic discipline, political discussion must become a Sisyphean task.  We no longer seek consensus, but instead look for comfort in communities of like-minded ideologues and shun those with whom we disagree as unsophisticated, or worse (think of the many unsavory adjectives we use to describe others).  We close ourselves off from open conversation and retreat into comfortable relationships with people who share only the same views, further reinforcing our hardened and arrogant sense of self-righteousness.  This is hardly a problem isolated to a single political persuasion or cultural clique, as most of us are guilty of this parochialism in varying degrees.          

Ultimately, in the absence of a consensus as to the meaning of words, political compromise will be increasingly difficult and our culture will necessarily become more fragmented.  When abortion is discussed only in terms of a “woman’s right to choose” and when every interest groups’ struggles are deemed a “civil rights issue,” we should expect to achieve little more than to instigate a shouting match between philosophical adversaries. 

Yet, we need not indulge in the sophistry of contemporary policy-speak.  If we expect to have genuine conversations regarding first principles and seminal policy issues, retreating into the lazy cowardice of sloganeering should be the last path we choose.  The next time you hear pundits or politicians spewing psychobabble and gobbledygook on the news, turn off the television and take a walk around the block. 


Glen A. Sproviero is a commercial litigator in New York. Read his previous columns here.