Words have meaning. At least, we like to think so. Otherwise, how would we communicate to each other? For example, let’s look at the word “communicate.” It comes from the Latin communis, which means “common.” Interestingly, the word “community” has the same derivation. Could it be that what communities hold in common is the meaning of the words used in their communication? Indeed, the way in which we communicate to each other helps form a common understanding–the very basis for a common set of values, customs, dialects, and even slang. Given their importance, we should respect words: use them as precisely as we can to express our feelings, to state our perspectives, and to relate the common facts of our existence to each other.
We grant poetic license to the purposeful fabrications and imaginative analogies of fiction writers and poets. For whether we see war’s futility in a soldier’s story or life’s promise in a surging waterfall, it’s not the soldier’s travail or the water’s submission to gravity that captures our imagination. It is the significance of the analogies and symbols presented. Our words can function either as signs, representing physical things in our experience, or they can elicit abstract concepts, even those that defy not only physical representation but also any form of definition. What, for instance, does the word “god” mean to you? However we use our language, we become responsible to the community in which we live for its integrity. Our words not only define us, but also our community, our culture, and even our nation.
So what should we make of analogies that equate the President as Hitler, the Pope as Marxist, conservatives as racist, and liberals as communists? Are these the ruminations emanating from a psyche ward? No, they come from duly elected members of Congress. They are not expressions of the mentally disassociated, but the deliberate distortions of the socially disassociated. You might ask how those we elect can represent us so poorly. Well, the answer rests in a reversal of the power flow in our democracy. Ideally in a democracy the power in governing rests with the people; and the people’s representatives are elected to execute that power in the interest of all—to “promote the general welfare,” as stated in the Constitution. However, our representatives have too often chosen the Madison Avenue mode of influencing and manipulating Americans with false analogies in order to sell a product and to promote self-interest instead of the common interest. When words are used to misrepresent the truth, to excoriate the opposition, and to elicit emotions irrelevant to reality, then more than semantics are violated. The very fabric of the “public forum” in which democracy must flourish is torn to shreds. Public discourse on the merits of diverse opinions is replaced with name-calling and irrelevant accusations. The floor of Congress is no longer the people’s forum, but the stage where power brokers fight for influence, media attention, and the support of campaign financiers.
Now we are not a country of one tribe, but of mixed cultures, united by common principles and the rule of law. In the community in which we find ourselves it is imperative that all speech be tolerated and that all opinions or discourse be respected. But, more to the point, that discourse must be a real dialogue if the future of our democracy is to be advanced. “Dialogue” implies an actual transfer/sharing of meaning, not the emptiness of a diatribe, a shouting match, or false analogies. One of the advantages of our nation’s diversity is the richness of perspectives in its populace. We are not bound by any one tradition other that the words in our Constitution and the pledge of allegiance. Those words have meaning and are debased by those who use provocative language without regard for the truth. They vitiate the public forum so necessary in a democracy, corrupt honest communication of diverse perspectives, and pollute our communities with their vitriol. Words do have meaning if used with integrity. Preserving that integrity preserves our own.