Sunday, October 05, 2008

Them's Fightin' Words...

Yesterday's Washington Post published a very interesting letter to the editor from a local resident named Don Denny. You can see it at the link, but since it's short, I'll quote it in full here:

"'Economic Jabs, Then Punches on World Affairs' (front page, Sept. 27).

'There were no knockout blows in the first presidential debate ...' (David Broder, op-ed, Sept. 28).

'I think (Barack Obama) won the debate, on points rather than by knockout...' (Jim Hoagland, op-ed, Sept. 28).

Why must a presidential debate, a conflict of ideas on matters of the gravest importance, be likened to a boxing match, a particularly brutal and degrading type of entertainment?"

Why, indeed?

The use of metaphors of war and battle is common in American discourse. Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen wrote about this phenomenon in her superb book The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue, which I have written about in this space before, and which I strongly recommend you read...especially now that we are in the middle of a typical no-holds-barred-and-no-metaphor-too-outrageous presidential campaign.

As Professor Tannen points out, we may use language, but language also uses us. The way we describe things shapes our thinking about them. If we see everything in terms of battle imagery, we are more likely to harden our opinions about the opposition, to dig in and fire back when faced with an opposing argument. Our arguments may be shot down, politicians battle for office, and a political debate may be described as a liberal-conservative shoot-out. In the recent Congressional drama over the "economic rescue plan," the President and senior members of Congress twisted arms to get quick action while employers slashed jobs. A front-page article in yesterday's Washington Post reported that the Republican party is "...readying a newly aggressive assault on Senator Barack Obama's character."

As a lover of language, I know that words matter. My mother may have said that sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you, but she wasn't quite right. Her point, of course, was that one shouldn't take stupid insults to heart...but we all do. We remember the slights. We notice the hurtful and divisive language and unconsciously file it away for use when we need ammunition with which to shoot back.

Metaphors of war and conflict may be appropriate to some sporting events (the Washington Redskins may crush, slam, or bury the Dallas Cowboys, but those words are probably not appropriate to reporting the outcome of, say, a croquet match or a billiard game). But when we use violent metaphors indiscriminately to describe matters both trivial and grave, they lose their power to rally us and stir us to action when such action is needed. They also harden our views unnecessarily, preventing the give-and-take discussion that leads to the resolution of problems and conflicts.

It's not just military metaphors that can hinder effective action. Did Congress pass a Wall Street giveaway or an economic rescue plan? Did they save fat cats from the results of their greed, or did they help out the little guy on Main Street? How we view the causes of the economic tsunami that is sweeping over us, and the efficacy of the plans proposed to resolve it, shapes the language we use to describe how we try to cope.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone else, as you know if you've read some of my admittedly-intemperate raging broadsides over the last week. I'm not immune to the problem I see. But I have to go back and think about the words we use and the mindsets they foster.

Maybe it's time to take the linguistic equivalent of a deep breath and try to discuss problems and issues in less inflammatory words. It's not as satisfying, but we'll probably get more accomplished, faster, and feel better about it when we're done.

We can use language to generate heat, or to generate light. Right now, we need the light more than the heat, but the heat's easier to generate, so we've learned to live with the darkness.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - how about a pair of applicable quotes?

"Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be." - The Bible, King James Version, James 3:5-10.


"One often contradicts an opinion when what is really uncongenial is the tone in which it was conveyed." - Friedrich Nietzsche



KKTSews said...

Nietzsche and KJV in the same post, OH MY!

Gilahi said...

There was an interesting story on NPR quite some time ago that posited that one of the reasons the Republicans were in power and the Democrats couldn't seem to do anything about it was that the Republicans had mastered the use of words and phrases, and the Democrats had not. The example I remember is the Republican-coined phrase "tax relief". The commentator said that taxes, in and of themselves, are not bad things. They pay for our roads and schools and infrastructure. However by simply appending the word "relief", there's the indication that taxes are onerous, vile, bad things that we need to be "relieved" of. "Tax reduction" (which is really what they're shooting for) simply doesn't carry the same weight.

I certainly agree. Words matter. I sometimes pause in the middle of a sentence to search for the exactly correct word or phrase. Drives my wife crazy.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

If boxing metaphors are going to be used, why don't they put gloves and get into the ring?

Mike said...

Just about every word in english has 5 to 10 definitions. That's why lawyers exist.

Amanda said...

I couldn't agree more with this post. I've felt for a long time that when speaking to a few of my friends, I don't have enough 'ammunition' because they are always firing all sorts of words. We all need that deep breath and go back to using nice normal words for awhile.

The Mistress of the Dark said...

The debates would be more fun if they did put on gloves and slug it out!