You know, I’ve gotten to the point with the politics where I start to get nauseous anytime I hear a politician speak. The ineptitude of the Democrats makes me dry heave, and the pure and unadulterated corruption of the Republicans makes bile drizzle out of my nose.
As a writer (yes, I consider myself one) I’m a big fan of language. One of the things that interest me the most is the ways in which we define ourselves and our society through language. The discourse of a society can only be as intelligent as the terms that define it. When you construct a discourse of absolutes you shouldn’t feign surprise when the discursive participants behave in an absolute manner. From the very beginning, the Bush Administration has been all about absolutes. In fact, I’d argue that the GOP’s propensity to speak in absolutist was the only reason Bush won the 2004 election. Kerry spoke in long, compound and complex sentences, which the average American interpreted as weakness. On the other hand, Bush used simple sentences with simple meanings. He made broad generalizations and even broader predictions of the future, but these simple sentences connoted resolution and strength.
This was one of the very things that Plato warned against in Gorgias. Plato was afraid that the sophists would use rhetoric to manipulate language and flatter their audiences with what the rhetor knew they want to hear, instead of using rhetoric to relate the truth. In our instant-gratification society, most people are too lazy to actually sit down and research the issues, or to think critically about what the politicians are saying in their speeches. It’s way easier to listen to someone who speaks in sound bytes and who never engages in any meaningful dialect.
So we accepted it when the President used terms like “with us or against us” because that kind of absolutist language is easy to digest. It goes into the ear quickly, it sounds tough, and we can go back to watching “American Idol” without any critical thinking having taken place. Trouble is, the president was inadvertently defining and priming the language the world would later use to engage in discourse. And as I said above, our thoughts can only be as good as our language, and the president was forcing our language into a binary, black/white paradigm.
Tragically, the world accepted this new paradigm without question. I cringed as President Bush proceeded to label Iran and Korea as participants in the “Axis of Evil.” Well hell, after he said that it didn’t really matter if they were participants in an “Axis of Evil” or not, because they most certainly were after that speech ended. Bush had defined reality through language, and virtually guaranteed that we wouldn’t be able to engage in any type of dialogue with those countries.
Then he used the phrase “with us or against us.” George Carlin identified absolutist comments such as this as “cosmetic non-solutions designed to impress simpletons.” The phrase sounds good, but the only thing it accomplishes is to draw a line in the sand further removing any possibility of meaningful dialogue with those people with whom we disagree.
This absolutist dialogue is now coming back to haunt us. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the “stay the course” phrase. The President has used this absolute statement over 100 times (and yes, I have citations if you want them) in the past few years, but now he’s having to back off of it.
Why is he backing off of this phrase, even though it’s been rather successful politically? People are starting to realize that in regards to the war in Iraq there are other options besides “stay the course” or “cut and run.”
I severely dislike, and most of the time hate, the current administration, but not for the same reasons as most people. I’m worried about the quality of our language, and the ways in which the Bush Administration has redefined the terminology and the connotative meaning of our discourse. (I’m also aghast at how they’ve perverted religion as a way to control and manipulate constituents, but that’s another post). How the effects of this discursive paradigm shift will play out over time is hard to gauge, but it doesn’t bode well. Since the administration has primed all of us to engage in absolutist discourse, our future politicians will have no other recourse than to continue this linguistic trend.
The only way out, the only way I can see which could reverse this process, sickens me to the point that I refuse to even type it.