There is never a time when what one says and how one says it matters more than in a crucial election year.
The words, and the slurs, candidates use reflect their attitudes, beliefs and values. They act as a barometer of their integrity, compassion, intellect and honesty. Perhaps more than that, words and suggestive sound bites shape how the electorate thinks and acts in the voting booth. There are loaded words, coded words, and so-called gaffes which tell us a lot about those who aspire to the most powerful position in the world. We must pay close attention to them.
It was ever thus. In a recent History News Service blog, author Rosemary Ostler pointed out that when Thomas Jefferson ran against President John Adams he was dubbed a "Franco-maniac" because he sympathized with the French Revolution. Anti-Jefferson newspapers predicted an American Reign of Terror if he were president. One editorial warned that "the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes." A rumor even spread that, if elected, Jefferson planned to confiscate Bibles.
More recently FDR was labeled "the Soviet candidate" for his New Deal policies. (Today President Obama is frequently called a "socialist.") John Kerry was accused of "looking French," thus being insufficiently American. Now President Obama has been accused by former candidate Newt Gingrich of having a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" world view while others posit that he is promoting ideas "foreign" to American history, culture and values.
That word "foreign," or the insinuation of it, keeps cropping up as the political rhetoric intensifies in the run-up to November. For example, former New Hampshire governor and White House chief of staff in the Bush "43 White House, John Sununu, said that the president needs to "learn how to be an American," a strange admonition coming from someone born in Cuba of Spanish and Palestinian parents.
The allegations suggesting dangerous foreign ideas and infiltration have spread to others in the Obama Administration in an alarming reprise of McCarthy-ism. Rep. Michele Bachmann has gone so far as to accuse Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's respected aide Huma Abedin of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to infiltrate the U.S. government.
These hostile, unfounded references to otherness - to being a dangerous outsider - have deeper meaning when one is in a heated battle with a likeable black incumbent. As Dr. Molefi Kete Asante wrote in an essay entitled "Identifying Racist Language: Linguistic Acts and Signs," the "contextualization of speech is itself a political act." Dr. Asante, arguing that incipient racism is still prevalent in American culture, claims that "offensive speech is deliberate public or private language intended to ridicule, post a threat, or belittle a person" because of their cultural or racial origin and political belief. "Use of such language is usually intended to create discomfort in the persons to whom the language is directed."
Dr. Asante's 2003 essay seems prescient. "The offending speaker believes his own discourse because he or she has never explored the information in an objective manner. " This person sees reality from the standpoint of major distortions of reality. " The speaker is sure that his or her information"has something to do with intelligence and ability and morality and God."
Aside from the ideation of otherness transmitted via loaded language that suggests being foreign and thus threatening, there is something else to be considered: What do words mean? When are they coded?
No one explained this idea better than social critic Noam Chomsky. In a 1986 interview captured in the 1992 book Stenographers to Power he said, by way of example, that the term "national interest" is used to connote something that's good for us. "However," Chomsky noted, "if you look closely, it turns out that the national interest is not defined as what's in the interest of the entire population; it's what's in the interests of small, dominant elites who command the resources that enable them to control the state. " The term "special interests," he continued, is used"to refer to the general population."
"This is [how] the framework of thought is consciously manipulated by an effective choice and reshaping of terminology so as to make it difficult to understand what's happening," Chomsky said. Understanding this point explains why during the Vietnam War the term "pacification" was used for mass murder, and why after World War II we no longer had a War Department but rather a Department of Defense. It's why we refer to civilians killed in military operations as "collateral damage."
The point is that when politicians tamper with the truth through distorted or evasive language, when they speak pejoratively about people with cultural backgrounds, skin colors and beliefs that differ from their own, when they omit information and create illusion in negative ads and stump speeches, when they insinuate that which is not true, we are all at risk of losing our common goals and aspirations.
That is why we must be vigilant against offensive, delusional speech that impedes the expression of ideas. No less than our democracy is at stake.