On the abuse of political language

In his seminal essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell makes this observation:

Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

And so it has been with the 2008 Presidential Election. While a great many things- on both sides- have irritated me, I find the McCain campaign's frequent abuse of language to be the most egregious. The Republican ticket, and VP candidate Sarah Palin in particular, are fond of stripping precise meaning from words and throwing the resulting linguistic neuters around like heavy stones. They hope the emotional connotations of their speech will do the work, and that their audience is too stupid to recognize language abuse when they see it.

So far, McCain and his disgraceful running mate seem to be getting away with it. Take their use of the word "socialism". They attempt to paint Obama as a socialist, or even a communist, based on his economic policies. Now, it is a long walk from Obama's plan to roll back tax cuts for the wealthy to anything even remotely resembling 'socialism'. This term means something specific. It has a defined historical origin and implies a very particular way of thinking about and organizing society. Anyone who calls Obama a socialist either has a horrendous understanding of the term, or is trying to deceive their audience. With McCain and Palin, it appears to be a little of both.

Here's why this bugs me. Meaningful communication depends on shared semiotic understanding. If we don't agree on what words mean, or if we actively attempt to distort their meaning, then communication becomes impossible. If we want to have a real conversation about Obama's economic policy, or socialism for that matter, then we need to be precise in our use of language. If we aren't, then Sarah Palin's winking deceit is able to pass unchallenged.

Incidentally, this criticism cuts both ways. When someone calls George W. Bush a fascist, they are committing a similar language crime as those who hurl the socialist epithet at Obama. Again, "fascism" refers to something specific. Bush may have presided over any number of anti-democratic policies, but he's a long way off from Mussolini, Franco or Hitler. To suggest otherwise is the worst kind of intellectual dishonesty.

So, before I leap to my death in a fit of frustration, stay vigilant. If you want to criticize a politician, use the right words in the right context. When language is perverted to make a political point,  our ability to talk about politics at all is damaged. With a crowd of  urgent political issues looming large on the horizon, this is a denigration we cannot afford.