After a few glorious days on Cape Cod, I returned to building my post-retirement infrastructure—brick-by-brick, or in today’s terms, file-by-file. Returning from a carefree time at the seashore where we did communal cooking as our grandkids dug for clams, it did not take long to be reminded of the ongoing chaos from Washington which has claimed another victim in Trump’s War—this time, the English language itself is being held hostage.

Forget about the limited and immature vocabulary, scrambled syntax and sloppy spelling. These can be written off as stylistic sidetracks—embarrassing perhaps, but not much more. A deeper concern lies in how language is being employed for policy ends that can have subtle but troubling and potentially long-term effects. When the President renders language meaningless, the fabric of society itself is in jeopardy. Indeed, it is our words that hold us together.

Techniques that expose this devolution of language include:

Exaggeration through incessant use of terms like “most beautiful,” “greatest,” “largest,” “most fantastic,” causes these words to lose their meaning as listeners recognize that such superlatives are not based in anything approaching reality. During the campaign, it was easy to excuse such rhetoric as political hyperbole, but now that the campaign is over, what purpose do they serve other than the self-aggrandizement of an administration that has yet to demonstrate its ability to get things done?

Omission can be more insidious. When Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner or Donald Trump, Jr. “forget” to mention meetings with important counterparts—domestic and foreign—and at which vital national security issues are at stake, the potential fallout is far more than annoying embarrassment. Many of the administration’s activities come to light only when they are revealed through tenacious reporting by the press. We can only begin to wonder how many initiatives are currently underway that are still secret because we haven’t yet figured out which questions to ask.

Repetition is a tactic that has excoriated actual opponents (Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted) and demonized whole groups of people (Muslims who hate us, immigrants who are bad hombres, the media who practice fake news). In an OpEd in the New York Times on Wednesday, July 19, Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy examine how the President’s repetitive slogans “essentialize” individuals or organizations. These endlessly repeated phrases reduce the subject of the taunt to a single, simplistic quality that may or may not be based in fact. By repeating the charge over and over, it becomes an urban legend and the public is quick to accept it as truth.

Distraction is another way that messages become mixed. Distractions attempt to minimize the importance of the interrupted subject matter, creating a moral equivalency between serious subjects and those “shining objects” to which our attention have been directed. Such diversions risk reducing important topics worthy of our attention concern and focus on subjects of fleeting interest and importance, leaving the listener to question what is important and what is not.

Conflation is used when core principles are drawn from parallels made between two unrelated subjects and then accepted as truth: responsiveness to climate change costs jobs. This can run to the absurd. In one recent example, the President was bantering with the press corps on Air Force One on route to Paris. The need for transparency in governance shifted to a question about the wall on the Mexican border. According to a transcript of the conversation released by the White House, President Trump affirmed that the wall needs one thing: transparency. “You have to be able to see through it,” he explained because drug dealers may otherwise throw large bags of drugs over the wall to the other side, and hit innocent passers-by. “As horrible as it sounds, when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them—they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It’s over,” he added. “As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall. But we have some incredible designs.” When asked if he was joking, he insisted that he was not.

These techniques could once be chalked up to incompetence or inexperience. But when language is continually abused in such a way, the center cannot hold. Language serves as the thread that weaves the fabric of our diverse society together. If that thread shrivels to irrelevancy and words become meaningless or absurd, our very existence as a cohesive and civilized society is under threat.

 

Recently, a friend in the ranks of the newly-retired mentioned that the thing he missed most about not working was the community he shared with his colleagues. I can relate to that. At Intersections, virtually all our efforts were built on teamwork—even seemingly solitary pursuits like writing blogs were undergirded and improved by colleagues with specific skills that, when taken together, made it possible to successfully meet deadlines and develop quality products. It takes time to build such an infrastructure.

Now that I am a solo operator, my appreciation for the various roles staff played in the production process continues to deepen. I must make my own deadlines and hold myself accountable. One objective is to write a weekly blog on a timely issue, set for posting on Friday mornings—just in time to give readers a thoughtful jump on the weekend. This is my first installment. I ask for your patience as I continue to build this infrastructure and share my thoughts on this web site.

And I welcome and encourage your thoughts in return. I covet your patience as I build an infrastructure that allows this pattern to find a firm footing in your weekly routine. B

2 thoughts on “The White House and the Devolution of Language

  1. The role of public rhetoric in leadership of any kind is crucial and often determinative. This is particularly so with presidential rhetoric. I was struck in the post 9/11 period by how President Bush’s selection of phrases and words shaped the public’s interpretation of events – “war on terror,” “axis of evil,” “with us or against us,” “smoke them out of their holes,” etc. Ideology shaped rhetoric which in turn bolstered ideology. How different the world might be right now if Bush had opted for very different language in his public utterances.

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