Why Language Matters…

On the most basic level, language matters because the ability to use words accurately to convey one’s meaning is a critically important skill in modern society.

And let’s be honest: we assess the probable intelligence of the people we meet based largely on their use of language. That isn’t simply snobbery–fuzzy language more often than not signals fuzzy thinking.

An individual’s use of language is a reasonably reliable clue to that person’s conceptual agility.

Those of us who are unimpressed with Donald Trump’s repeated assertion that he is “like really, really smart” often point to his lack of language skills. Newsweek recently compared the vocabularies of the last 15 U.S. Presidents, and ranked Trump at the very bottom.

President Donald Trump—who boasted over the weekend that his success in life was a result of “being, like, really smart”—communicates at the lowest grade level of the last 15 presidents, according to a new analysis of the speech patterns of presidents going back to Herbert Hoover….

By every metric and methodology tested, Donald Trump’s vocabulary and grammatical structure is significantly more simple, and less diverse, than any President since Herbert Hoover, when measuring “off-script” words, that is, words far less likely to have been written in advance for the speaker,” Factba.se CEO Bill Frischling wrote. “The gap between Trump and the next closest president … is larger than any other gap using Flesch-Kincaid. Statistically speaking, there is a significant gap.”

Of course, it’s also true that genuinely bright people rarely find it necessary to tell people how smart they are…

Effective propaganda requires the manipulation of language, and that’s another reason to be alert to its use. Trump’s former consiglieri, Steve Bannon, clearly understands that in order to change social attitudes, it is necessary to change reactions to certain words. As a recent, fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times recounts,

In a speech last weekend in France, Stephen Bannon, the former top adviser to President Trump, urged an audience of far-right National Front Party members to “let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes.” He went on: “Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.”

The author notes that this is a departure from the usual “dog whistle” approach taken by racists and xenophobes–Trump’s constant references to immigrants as criminals, for example, or the traditional, negative euphemisms for Jews and blacks. Bannon wants to eliminate the pretense, and change our reaction to words that convey straightforward bigotry.

Bannon is urging the adoption of an irrational bias against racial minorities, immigrants and foreigners, one that does not require reasons, even bad ones, to support it. And he recommends presenting such irrationality as virtuous….

But taking Bannon’s advice also requires rejecting any recognizable practice of giving plausible reasons for holding a view or position. To proudly identify as a xenophobe is to identify as someone who is not interested in argument. It is to be irrationally fearful of foreigners, and proudly so. It means not masking one’s irrationality even from oneself.

Bannon’s rhetorical move of transforming vices based on irrational prejudice into virtues is not without historical precedent. Hitler devotes the second chapter of “Mein Kampf” to explaining how his time in Vienna as a young man transformed him into a “fanatical anti-Semite.” …. Such fanatical irrationality is, in Hitler’s rhetoric, virtuous.

Of course, comparing rhetoric and policies are two different things. No recent far-right movement in Europe or the United States has enacted the sort of genocidal policies that the Nazis did, and no such comparison is intended. But history has shown that the sort of subversion of language that Bannon has engaged in is often deeply intertwined with what a government will do, and what its people will allow. Bannon’s own cheer to the National Front members — “The tide of history is with us and it will compel us to victory after victory after victory” — shows clearly enough that he does not mean his efforts to end in mere speech.

Performing such inversions is an attempt to change the ideologies and behaviors of large groups of people. It is done to legitimate extreme, inhumane treatment of minority populations (or perhaps, to render such treatment no longer in need of legitimation). In this country, we are familiar with it from the criminal justice system’s treatment of black Americans, in some of the “get tough on crime” rhetoric that fed racialized mass incarceration in Northern cities, or the open racism sometimes connected to Southern white identity or “heritage.” Its aim is to create a population seeking leaders who are utterly ruthless and cruel, intolerant, irrational and unyielding in the face of challenges to the cultural and political dominance of the majority racial or religious group. It normalizes fascism.

Remember “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”? It was wrong.

Language matters.

24 thoughts on “Why Language Matters…

  1. Sheila,

    “Bannon’s own cheer to the National Front members — “The tide of history is with us and it will compel us to victory after victory after victory” — shows clearly enough that he does not mean his efforts to end in mere speech.”

    Does anyone believe Donald Trump thinks any differently? If you do, you ought to make sure you have your head examined as early as possible.

  2. #VictimHood

    Think about the propaganda used by rich white plantation owners to convince poor whites in the South to fight the “Northern Aggression”. The poor whites were “under attack”…victims.

    It allows for a common enemy.

    Pence has been using that claim for his Evangelical base for years now. In fact, “liberalism” in general has become the enemy of the predominantly poor white Evangelical Americans.

    Remember the Tea Party?

    It’s now the GOP and they are under attack by many common enemies…liberals, people of color, gays, immigrants, foreigners, etc.

    It’s the basis for Nationalism. Why do you think they rallied to Trump’s defense after HC called them “deplorables”?

    This is why I laugh when community and national leaders beg Americans to “come together”. We don’t have a history of coming together except in wars against real enemies. How long have we been raging war against “evildoers”? “War on Terrorism”?

    I’m glad there are more comparisons to Mein Kampf and Hitler’s use of propaganda. He was very successful in manipulating the masses before Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, started it in America.

    Hitler’s premise was the masses aren’t very smart so phrases had to be short and repeated often so they could understand it.

    A high use of language skills would have failed Hitler. The media uses 5th grade language skills for a reason. 😉

  3. I wonder what kind of childhood people like Bannon and his protege Stephen Miller had. Were they outcasts? What has made them so angry and hateful? We never hear anything about Miller anymore, even though he holds a place of power in this administration.

    Then there is pence. What caused him to be radicalized by evangelicals? What was missing from his life that made him vulnerable to such a radical religious sect, since he was not raised that way? He is a very dangerous man and skillfully hides that danger by always claiming to be a Christian. He and the team of evil evangelicals that he has placed inside this administration are nothing more than power-hungry bastards who want to force everyone in this country to follow their bastardized version of a religion.

  4. I have seen no more information in the media regarding Texas educators rewriting the history of slavery as a good thing, bringing people here with guaranteed jobs, homes, food, clothing and medical care waiting.

    The wealthy Republicans bastardized the original Boston Tea Party; carried out to protest taxation without representation and became the rallying cry to Trump’s minions.

    Why did Hillary apologize for calling Trump’s supporter “deplorables”? She had no reason to apologize for stating the truth which has been proven repeatedly during his campaign and since Trump’s inauguration. What is the true language behind that apology?

    Over approximately the past 40 years of Trump being in the news; his basic ignorance, dishonesty in business, foul language, marriages, affairs and divorces due to pregnant girlfriends and sexual predatory history has been in the media for all to see and hear. The Republican party is the one whose language leading to their support of him and his election needs explanation. So does their useless waste of language speaking out against his language but voting for passage of any bill he put before them.

    Does language matter when coming from Trump and the GOP when there is no evidence of fact or truth in anything they say? He claims “fake news” when the media shows actual films of his own words and deeds, even on the international level with his deliberate destruction of diplomatic relationships with national leaders. He admitted he lied to Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau but that language seemed to pass over heads of elected officials – or went in one ear and out the other. He seeks to silence his sexual abuse victims and their language has become meaningless.

    “Dogs bark but the Trump caravan moves on!”

  5. JoAnn,

    “Dogs bark but the Trump caravan moves on.”

    100% all bark, absolutely no bite. A country of civic cowards and/or fools. Wonderful.

    Lets keep up the good work!

  6. Interesting that Trump’s appeal is based on his ignorance. It paints a worrisome profile of voters in the US. Also may explain the interest in substituting religion for education through the diversion of tax money to primarily religious schools. Sh*t, they’ll be burning witches in the public square soon. He has to be impeached ASAP.

  7. Just found this, it speaks partly to what you were addressing. Do have to say that there is a fire that has been lit, just keep blowing on the embers and we can make this fat baby burn in his own lies and garbage. We need to end this klown show, real soon!

  8. From the internet: “Recent polls show Democrat Conor Lamb running neck and neck [ he won]with his Republican opponent Rick Saccone. Democrats are looking at an improbable prospect: Lamb could win a deeply red district that Democrats were never even supposed to be competitive in. And part of the reason he might be doing so well is his PRO-GUN MESSAGING.

    Lamb’s first campaign ad featured footage of him shooting an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle at a gun range, with the narrator voiceover saying the candidate “still loves to shoot.”

    Maybe he will be the Demorcratic Party’s “White Knight,” what do you think?

  9. The language used by commentators in the news media has much to be desired too. Innuendo, speculation, and the parsing of words all keep the public in a state of confused concern. Even with video to prove that someone lied, those talking heads jump into the safety box of “allegedly”. The result is a game of “please don’t sue me” instead of truthful and accurate news.

    And we wonder why the voters are turned off.

  10. Right on, Sheila. I spent 30 years in secondary school classrooms sharing with my students the reason why both written and spoken language matter. Our current President’s use of language would be laughable if it weren’t so pathetic. If one reads his blustering and eliminates the adjectives—most of which he uses repetitively—it’s easy to tell that he is not “really, really smart.”

  11. To quote the man that warned us the next act of terrorism upon America could arrive in the form of a mushroom cloud…..From Saddam Hussein.

    George W. Bush: “Is our children learning?”

    The faster the Republican brand has no credibility the better. Next,the Democratic Party must be changed into an organization that represents the public –not multimillionaires and billionaires–in a manner that is forceful,competent and willing to forgo the monies of BIG MONEYED corporate lobbyists. Both political parties have lost credibility with reasonable and thoughtful people. Why do so many stay away from voting? Is the electoral College a factor? Were Super-Delegates a factor in alienating more folks? How about the lackeys from both parties unquestionable demand for the public’s support for lousy candidates,could that be a factor?

  12. Where is the soaring rhetoric of the Kennedys? Who, in the political world, inspires great thing? When I was a school teacher, my students sometimes complained that I used big words. I told them that I used the appropriate word for the situation and that they should do the same thing. I told them that I used those words to show respect for their ability to understand them or their ambition to find out their meanings. Nobody in my classes asked dumb questions. Everybody learned. The Trump acolytes are intellectually and factually lazy. He’s feeding their Bud Light mentality. Even the marketeers at Anheuser-Busch figured it out. After the first syllable of their brand name, Trump-ites lost interest. Hence, Bud Light.

    Todd,

    Even people who lie tell the truth sometimes. Everybody lies. Everybody tells the truth.

  13. At one time the dog whistles had to be employed to not appear overtly extremist.

    The word Liberal was transformed and exaggerated into Liberal=Socialist=Communist=Stalin=Castro=Mao. The fear in the USA of Socialism in the USA runs deep. American Capitalism joined the Holy Trinity as the Holy Quartet. The “Market” was all knowing, all seeing and always right. Environmentalists were smeared with the word Eco-Terrorists. Feminists became Femi-Nazis in the Right Wing dictionary.

    The Trumpet (aka Agent Orange) and Bannon have decided dog whistles are too subtle and give in to political correctness. People who object to this overt name calling are labeled snowflakes.

    The real purpose of this “them against us”, is to keep us proles separated and fighting among ourselves. Hillary shot herself in the foot when she labeled people as deplorable in the same way Romney had shot himself with the makers and takers statement.

  14. Indeed words do matter – a lot. Look at history. Aside from war talk, history is replete with addresses from Washington’s Farewell Address through Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address through FDR’s Four Freedoms. Our political and other views are shaped by words; no institution could survive without words and our reactions to them as played into policy choices.

    Our current occupant of the Oval Office has substituted invective for reasoned discussion of the issues out of ignorance and impatience and rightly deserves Newsweek’s designation, but he has problems well beyond poor communication skills, chief of which is his poorly-hidden desire to be an authoritarian like the “strong leader” description he gives for Putin, the poisoner in chief reelected for another six year term yesterday. All hail to the chief money launderer who has launched a cyber war against our institutions and democracy! I note here that Hitler was a strong leader, too, so presumably Trump would shower him with accolades as well if he were still among the living.

    Speaking of words, we are hearing from Trump’s lawyer today that Trump is not talking about firing Mueller which, in lawyer talk, may be true. What is missing in his lawyer’s words is the fact that Trump plans to fire the recused Sessions, put in a yes man, and have him fire Mueller. Words! Words! And how they are subjected to Lakoffian framing for effect!

  15. Words are tools like hammers for instance. In the hands of a two year old a hammer can be a tool of mass destruction. Having great command of a language is not a useful tool without great ideas to express.

    Trump expresses his simplistic thoughts in simple language. The same ideas expressed in the King’s English would still be simple.

    Bannon from the little exposure that I’ve had can express even simpler ideas but with some eloquence. Should we pay him greater attention?

    Also these people are not the problem. These people are the symptoms of the problem as was Hitler. Under slightly different circumstances we never would have heard of Hitler or Trump or Bannon.

    So we are in a war of ideas in our time in our place. A war we will win or lose mostly due to how effective our tactics to fight it prove to be.

    On the average the idea of liberal democracy are expressed better in this forum than the vast majority of other sources. Does that mean our success is guaranteed? Not at all. On other forums other ideas are just as compelling to other people as ours are to us.

    I seem to have stirred up some controversy in these parts which is good, it’s absolutely my intention.

    Let me then try to clarify the essence of the simple tactic that will more than anything win or lose this war of ideas vis a vis our time and place in my opinion.

    United we stand, divided we fall.

  16. “When words lose their meanings, Men lose their freedoms”. So, the premise is timeworn. The use of media for social control while older than Goebbels has had much refinement since his day. His techniques were used by FDR. They were used by the CIA domestically at Ike’s behest. They continued to be used in the Time/Life/Luce collaborations and in https://www.bing.com/search?q=operation+mockingbird&qs=LS&pq=operation+mo&sc=8-12&cvid=09967B061F0D418DBF6FD59A7A0D6672&FORM=QBLH&sp=1 Recently in some news we read where DOD spent $500,000,000 on propaganda some of which was consumed domestically. We see in the American State Controlled Media very much one way messages…but the internet and social media, while not the first tier of reliability at least offer foreign sources who seem to break the news that the controlled media will not. By and large, your cronies here seem to eat up the controlled media offerings and pay no attention to the, essentially, lies of omission. The upcoming revelations about social media misuse is going to be amusing.

  17. Leon @ 4:30 pm > The upcoming revelations about social media misuse is going to be amusing.

    Why anyone would be surprised by some company harvesting data on you from the internet itself is surprising.

    Glad you brought up Operation Mockingbird.

    DOD spent some significant money also on staged managed events:

    In 2015, Arizona Sens. Jeff Flake (R) and John McCain (R) revealed in a joint oversight report that nearly $5.4 million in taxpayer dollars had been paid out to 14 NFL teams between 2011 and 2014 to honor service members and put on elaborate, “patriotic salutes” to the military. Overall, they reported, “these displays of paid patriotism [were] included within the $6.8 million that the Department of Defense (DOD) [had] spent on sports marketing contracts since fiscal year 2012.” https://thinkprogress.org/nfl-dod-national-anthem-6f682cebc7cd/

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