Claiming “Otherness” is a useful thing in political campaign. It helps establish the perception of a moral center around which one’s allies can rally. It assists in the creation of an antagonist to further a narrative. “They” are not “of us.” “Their” preferences are alien to ours. “Ours” is the authentic vox populi.
While it is within the bounds of fair play to have a civil discussion, where debates among reasonable people are grounded in reality, it is quite another case to insist that one’s opinions are true simply because…well…one believes them to be true. “Your plan cuts down more trees than our plan. Why? Because it is your plan and therefore it must lead to bad things!” When one side adopts a “final vocabulary,” as Richard Rorty might say, it inhibits the ability of such a population to consider the validity of different perspectives. It is a signifier of a closed mind.
Political language is meant to persuade. Words and numbers are combined to develop the most compelling argument for (or against) one particular position or cause. Rhetoric is employed to communicate that argument to an audience. It is hoped that the language will move that audience to make a decision and take an action. That said, when language is twisted and debased... or when the “others” are termed “enemies,” that coarsens the discussion and weakens the foundations of democratic governance.
Imagine if two groups were discussing waffles. One group describes a waffle as “leavened batter or dough cooked between two plates, patterned to give a characteristic size, shape and surface impression" (source: Wikipedia). Another group describes them as flattened disks of steaming evil and those who consume them are bad, ill-intentioned people. Where is the ability to find common ground? How can productive communication occur?
Of course that is what former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and certain GOP operatives did in the 1980s and 1990s when they sought to turn the word “liberal” into a vicious epithet. Sully the group and make their ideas unpalatable. In the short term, it might have given Gingrich and his coterie some victories….but it helped usher in an era of distrust, of hyper-partisanship, of gridlock and bitterness.
I have no hopes that his legacy will yield in favor of a newfound spirit of respect and cooperation anytime soon, not in DC. That said, I hope in our corner of the universe, in Howard County, we can find ways to talk with each other civilly, and not at each other angrily.
At least we should be able to agree on the definition of a waffle.
Stay tuned, as more will follow.