As I sit here, tracking the results of the New Hampshire Republican primary, I can’t help but meditate on the power of words. I live in Iowa as well, so the caucuses of a week ago are also fresh in my mind. As a registered Independent and obstinate person who cannot agree enough with either side to affiliate myself entirely with one or the other, I find myself in a great position. I don't have worry about the pressure to adopt the rhetoric of any party. I have the freedom to pick and choose. However, I won’t claim to be immune to the rhetoric flying around. Let’s face it, even the most intelligent, savvy people find themselves susceptible to it from time to time.
The speeches, constructed from carefully selected, emotionally charged words, are a crucial part of one of the longest, most expensive, and grueling job application processes in the world. Yes, we can look at a candidate’s prior record to get an idea of who they are and what they believe in, but let’s be honest. While many politically active people care enough to put in the time and energy to conduct this kind of research, most citizens make their decision based solely upon a candidate’s performance in a debate or a speech that they found particularly moving. Words can be crafted to paint any facts in a new light, or to obscure inconvenient, potentially damaging, truths. That is the nature of politics, and whether we like it or not, language itself can be very political at times.
I say this because I have strong feelings about the state of politics these days. What can I say? The division in this country seems to be larger than ever, and I find myself inexorably trapped in the middle of two diametrically opposed sides. As the two drift further away from one another, driven by animosity and fervent belief in party dogma, we see that division portrayed through bitter words. Issues, framed through carefully coined terms such as “pro life” vs. “pro choice,” illustrate with clarity what each side believes is at stake. And as political attitudes evolve, we can see how the evolution of the rhetoric has directed it. After all, in a nation where people are looking for a way out of economic difficulty, we’re seeing the word “moderate” devolve into a nasty word, at least as far as the GOP is concerned. Even putting my own political beliefs aside, I can’t help but find this fascinating, and terrifying, at the same time. Words can be a wonderful beacon of civilization. They can be art. They are capable of portraying, and perpetrating, the best and worst that humanity has ever known. It’s all in the hands and motivations of those who wield those words.
As a writer, I can’t deny that I live in awe of that power, and I hope that I can do well with it. I want to live up to the responsibility that comes along with language. And I also hope that people read, and watch, the world around them with a critical eye. Sometimes you should allow language to move you, because being swept away by beautiful words can be a wonderful thing. Yet, in the public arena, we need to be careful, because that kind of unquestioning submission can be extremely dangerous.