Language of Politics

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

What Is It

Politics, especially American politics, puts pressure on words like "liberal", "conservative" and "values" as they are used more as weapons than as tools for communication.   John and Ken discuss this process and the philosophical shifts that often accompany changes in meaning with famed San Francisco linguist Geoff Nunberg, a regular on "Fresh Air."

Listening Notes

John thinks that language is supposed to be used to clearly express beliefs, but political language doesn't just express beliefs.  It mobilizes and inspires.  Why can't politicians use clear, literal language?  Is metaphorical language misleading?  Are the politicians solely to blame?  What about the reporters who write and print that stuff?  Ken introduces Geoffrey Nunberg, linguist and contributor to Fresh Air on NPR.  The term 'values', in the plural, comes from philosophy, from Georg Zimmel.  It entered the American political scene in the 70s, mixing the notions of social mores and moral principles. It has a very specific sense in politics.  Nunberg suggests that the conservatives have a hold on the term 'values'.  Nunberg says that the word 'liberal' has similarly attained a very specific meaning.

Is the pervasiveness of political language a recent phenomenon?  Orwell thought that political language was useful for avoiding tough arguments about the issues.  Nunberg thinks that a certain amount of spin or framing is inevitable in our political system.  John asks whether the journalists aren't supposed to be a counter against political language.  Frames are the sets of contrasts and concepts that are brought in by using certain words, like 'torture' and 'death tax'.  Nunberg thinks that there is no form of language that has a value-neutral take on the world.  Walter Lippmann thought the only way to achieve consensus in a pluralistic society is to use symbols that only have emotional meaning, no cognitive meaning.

John points out that many descriptions can be applied to a single thing.  Is there ever a point when labels become illegitimate?  Is one side worse than the other?  John says that Kerry's acceptance speech for the presidential nomination was just as bad as any conservative speech.  Shouldn't part of the blame fall on the voters for allowing politicians to use this language?  It seems that the politicians, journalists, and the voters are all to blame in part.