All words like Peace and Love,
All sane affirmative speech,
Had been soiled, profaned, debased
To a horrid mechanical screech. (1)
It seems to go without saying that our ability to use language to communicate with people is a human faculty of the utmost importance. Speech is, after all, what distinguishes us from other species, and was a key reason for human development. However, if one impartially observes everyday mainstream political discourse, or the speeches of politicians, it becomes apparent that something is amiss. The marketplace of ideas seems to be functioning as the theory suggests; ideas are being freely exchanged at a dizzying speed on the relatively unrestricted Internet and elsewhere. But a cursory glance at the various political ideas being exchanged reveals that certain political words have various meanings, depending on who is using them, and these various meanings often “cannot be reconciled with one another.”(2) How does this happen? And would it be appropriate to say that some people are abusing, or misusing, political words? Or is using political words however one pleases just the “natural” result of a democratic society that cherishes freedom of speech?
The issue of words having irreconcilable meanings does not seem to be a problem, for example, in the physical sciences. It would be strange for a physicist to adopt a new meaning for the word gravity without any kind of coherent reasoning; this would go against the standards that are put in place in the physical sciences. Thus controversy surrounding the meanings of the words in the physical sciences rarely happens, and attention is mainly focused on the competing theories within the given field of science. However, this issue is not always the case in the political world. For example, the socialist literature of the 19th and 20th century expressed socialism to mean a system in which the workers own and control the means of production, consumption, and distribution. Yet it is common to hear people in right- wing circles say that President Obama and the Democrats are implementing socialism in America. Has the meaning of socialism changed? It would be difficult to justify a claim that President Obama is creating policies that hand over ownership and control of America’s businesses to the workers. What makes it even stranger is that those who consider themselves socialist are saying that President Obama and the Democrats are implementing policies that are anything but socialism.(3) How can there be such a stark difference between the two points of view on the meaning of one word?
The partial answer is that many political ideas are still contested within the political world and have not reached a consensus that is shared by all, unlike how the concept of gravity, or other aspects in the physical sciences, eventually reached a consensus and became scientific law. And because of the contested nature of these political ideas they remain in competition in the marketplace of ideas; that is, a person or an institution can argue that socialism is X, Y and Z, while another set of people can argue that socialism is actually A, B and C. The theory of the marketplace of ideas suggests that the truth will emerge from a free and fair competition. But what kinds of standards exist within this marketplace of ideas? And would it be fair if a group of people with greater resources and access to mass communications could attempt to undermine the meaning of a political idea so that their idea will gain an advantage in the marketplace of ideas?
What begins to become apparent is that the standards in the political world are much looser than the standards used in the physical sciences. In other words, there is no permanent committee that regulates and approves of the meanings of important words used in mainstream political discourse.(4) But neither is there in the physical sciences. This seems to suggest that the contested nature of political ideas might be more of an issue because politics mainly deals with the unsettled, and often turbulent, question of Who rules Whom?
The important question of who rules whom thus may reveal why political, economic, and religious ideas seem to be in a continuous competition. The proponents of various political, economic, and religious ideas seek to offer their adherents the best explanation of a complex, diverse, and continuously changing world, and also believe their ideas offer the best strategy for the future. But why do the meanings of certain political words also have to fall prey to the continuously changing world? Why can’t we just create new political words to represent the new ideas, or evolving ideas? It would be one thing if the contested meaning of a political word were a new concept, but many political words have been around for over a century, some much longer. Thus one of the consequences of the contested nature of political ideas is that the meaning of the words used to describe them, like socialism, are abused and become victims, so to speak, in the struggle over how the world should be ruled. This problem then creates a situation in which words become ambiguous and indeterminate.
How do political words become indeterminate? Was this a problem in pre- modern times, or is it just a problem that arose during modernity? In this essay I will explore these questions and argue that the abuse and misuse of political words by various political actors are creating indeterminate political words, which leads to the degradation of political discourse. An example of the abuse of political words would be people’s using them more as pejoratives to attack political opponents. The use of pejoratives in speech is often used to conceal facts and divert attention away from much needed arguments, rather than to explain and understand the various issues. And an example of the misuse of political words would be ordinary people’s inappropriately using words through lack of understanding and/or mimicking the talking points of their trusted sources for understanding politics. This is a problem because it causes confusion throughout society and hinders our ability to find common ground. I am not going to suggest that I have the solutions to the problem; rather this essay will explore the various causes of the misuse and abuse of political language by highlighting the insights of four prominent political thinkers on language: Plato, Alexis de Tocqueville, George Orwell, and Hannah Arendt. My hope is that this exploration will help contribute to, and deepen, the discussion regarding the degradation of political discourse.
In the first part of this paper I will be using the insights found in Hannah Arendt’s work to discuss the importance of speech for political life, and how words are something that we use to appropriate nature and the various things we produce in this world. Arendt argued that not only was language common to us all, but that nature and the innumerable amount of things in this world were common to us all as well – even though our relations towards these things varies from person to person. Arendt also believed that speech and action are the single most important conditions of human life, so much so that life without them would not be life at all.(5)
The second part of the essay will then explore how the degradation of language happens in the political world. To do this I will again use the insights of Arendt on what she saw as people failing to make important distinctions when engaging in political discourse, and a phenomenon that she called “the functionalization of all concepts and ideas.” The functionalization of concepts is when a person starts labeling a distinct concept by using another distinct concept’s name because they believe the two different concepts serves the same function in society. For example, people sometimes call communism a religion because the adherents of communism supposedly worship the idea of communism like religious adherents worship their respective religious dogmas. Arendt believed that this leads to confusing the issues because people no longer make the important distinctions between the concepts and ideas.
The second part of looking at the degradation of language will then use the insights of George Orwell and his observations on the abuse and misuse of language in society. Orwell observed that society appeared to be moving away from the use of concrete language and toward the use of abstract language. He also saw how the use of indeterminate political words and vague language had a special ramification for the political world by highlighting how partisans used these words.
And the third part of the essay will then explore possible reasons for the degradation of language by looking at the insights of Plato, and also of Alexis de Tocqueville. Both of their observations seem to complement Arendt and Orwell’s observation on language, and might even suggest that the degradation of political discourse may be a permanent, and unfortunate, feature found in democratic countries. And the final part of the essay will be a case study that uses the insights of the four political thinkers to show how today’s media play a prominent role in the debasement of political discourse. The case study will focus on how the word socialism has come to have two starkly different meanings throughout society. Also, throughout the paper I hope to show how the degenerative state of political discourse is not the result of a handful of actors, but is a problem to which we all contribute.
Political Life and the Importance of Language
It can safely be argued that the whole process of creating words and using them in speech is what distinguishes us from other species. Language is what allows us to understand and make sense of our world. Hannah Arendt saw words as “carriers of meaning” and believed that “the creation of words” is how the human world appropriates and identifies nature and the things of this world.(6) It is important to point out that what Arendt meant by the things of this world is related “to the human artifact” and the “affairs which go on among” the people who inhabit this planet.(7) An example of the human artifact would be books and buildings, and an example of human affairs would be the ideas we share through human discourse and historical events that happen between people.
The creation of words to designate and identify objects (both of nature and the things of this world) helps dis-alienate each new generation from the world and each other.(8) What Arendt meant by being dis-alienated from the world is that the words we use to give meaning to the things of this world help us create a common understanding of them. We are all unique beings with differing perspectives, but through socialization and education each of us comes to know, for example, what a book, or a tree, or water is when we see them. And even complete strangers will at least have the accepted meanings of the things of this world in common. This point may seem trivial to even bring up because it would be almost unfathomable for a person, or a group of people, to decide to start calling books, trees, or water by other names. And one could image how difficult it would be to go to a foreign country without knowing a single word of the foreign language; it would no doubt leave you feeling alienated from them. This example also shows us how the appropriation of words, and people’s adherence to the most basic meanings of these words, create a commonality between all those who understand the given language.
Language and the overwhelming majority of the things of this world were given names a long time ago. The process of how each of us acquired our language as children is a complex study that linguists are still debating, and is not something that needs to be examined in depth for our purposes. But we do know that every person is socialized through a language that came into existence long before we were born. Children usually learn the basics of language and can communicate even before they enter school. The beginning process of learning what the things of this world are for children is often done through a simple method, like pointing to a dog in amazement the first time they see one. The parent will then say, “Yes, that is a dog. Can you say, dog?”
Language socialization does not stop after children learn to talk, and continues on as they learn to use language in new ways through their education and other various social interactions. During primary education children begin to learn about math, science, and English composition, and later will get exposed to some sort of basic civics lesson on government and politics. All of this helps children expand their understanding of the things of this world.
Arendt would go one step further than just the idea of people sharing a language with common meanings. She argued that the things of this world, in themselves, are common to us all. We may each have differing perspectives and relations toward the things of this world, but they will always be something each of us has in common. For example: the beautiful state capitol I pass by everyday in my city is something that is common to every person who passes by it as well. But my relation to it, or my perspective about it, is likely different from, say, those of the politician who works in the building, or somebody who might hold different political views about the government. Arendt noted that the world is like “a table [that] is located between those who sit around it.” The table gathers us together and creates a commonality among strangers, but it also separates and “prevents our falling over each other, so to speak.” Thus the things of this world are located between us and create a two-fold nature because they both relate and separate us.(9)
The two-fold nature of the things of this world partially reveals why humans organize and create states, laws, contracts, and other institutions. This two-fold nature is also why Arendt believed “politics arises in what lies between men and is established as relationships.”(10) In other words, the innumerable number of things in this world and the almost infinite ways in which they relate and separate us create the necessity to establish rules, or laws, and institutions to help humans come together in an orderly way. In private life, or family life, the things of this world often do not separate us from family members as much as they might between complete strangers. But the fact of life is that we all must venture out beyond our four private walls and engage with the social realm, or the political realm, in one way or another.(11) This is because we are not self-sufficient and must enter into the world to survive. Thus we can see the importance of using speech as we eventually journey out from our four private walls and into the world to engage in relationships with others.
With language we then use our ability to communicate with others through speech. And communicating with others is how we come to understand the world, including our own lives and experiences. As Arendt noted, “[M]en in so far as they live and move and act in this world, can experience meaningfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves.”(12) What Arendt meant by “act in this world” can best be understood as human agency; or rather, the fact that we all have the ability “to take the initiative, to begin… [or] to set something into motion” through our actions.(13) Each person that enters into this world is a unique being, and it is only through the process of speech and action that we can actively reveal who we are to the human world.(14)
In The Human Condition, Arendt expounded on the concept known as the Vita Activa – which contains the three fundamental human activities: labor, work and action. She argued that “labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process” that is necessary for the survival of the human species. Work is the human activity that creates the things of this world. And, “action is the only activity that goes on directly between men… and corresponds to the human condition of plurality.” For Arendt, the condition of human plurality – “the fact that men, not Man, live on this earth” – is the essential ingredient for “all political life” because if we were all identical beings there would be no need for political life.(15)
A person’s actions can be understood without the use of verbal explanations. Arendt argued, however, it is mostly through speech that a person’s actions become clear to others.(16) In other words, speech is what allows people to explain their actions. For example, people would be left in confusion if disempowered citizens decided to take action against a policy they disliked by chaining themselves to the front door of the state capitol without using the spoken word to explain their actions. Politicians, and any news that might cover this protest, would understand that people were chained to the front door of the capitol, but without the spoken word they would not know why the protesters decided to do so. However, only through speech would these people be able to reveal the reason why they chained themselves to the door. Thus with this simple example of speech and action we can see why language is so important in politics because with “word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world.”(17)
However, if the protesters used speech that contained political words that did not accurately express their reason why they disliked the politician, and his or her policy, it would create misunderstanding and possible confusion as to why they were protesting. So, for example, if the protesters were holding signs that stated, “Stop the Marxist politicians from implementing communism in America,” but the politicians were consistent liberals, or progressives, simply implementing a policy that had nothing to do with communism, those who understand the distinctions between liberalism and communism would simply write the protesters off as people who are confused about the issues, or may have been misled into believing that the politicians were Marxists by other sources. This hypothetical shows us a simple way in which people can misuse political words (a point we will discuss more below).
The misuse of words is much less of a problem when we speak to others about the everyday actions, such as in “I walked the dog this morning.” But everyday life is not always simple, and we are often confronted by a diverse and complex world that requires explanation and understanding. Furthermore, we are faced with the fact that we are all born into a world that has “an already existing web of human relationships.”(18) This web consists of the various social, economic, familial, cultural, legal, linguistic and political institutions into which we are born. Thus a person’s actions will always have to confront an “innumerable [number of] conflicting wills and intentions” that exist within the web of human relationships.(19) In other words, the disempowered citizens who chained themselves to the front door of the capitol might seriously dislike the policy they are protesting, but there are likely many people who support the intentions and reasons for the policy.
But not only do we confront an innumerable number of conflicting wills and intentions in this world when we attempt to take action against, or for, something, but we also confront the overwhelming enormity of the web of relationships, and the massive diversity and variety of things (objects, ideas, institutions, etc.) in the world. This increases the likelihood that we might struggle to find the right words to describe something that is unfamiliar to us, or fall prey to and believe a so-called expert who feeds us inaccurate information.
The enormity and complexity of the things of this world are one of “the reason[s] why all our definitions are distinctions [and] why we are unable to say what anything is without distinguishing it from something else.”(20) In other words, if I were to explain to a person who had only a basic understanding of the American political system about a foreign political system that was unknown to him or her, I would have to distinguish the known from the unknown political systems. Making distinctions is such an important aspect of speech because without it we would not be able to explain the things of this world to others.
Arendt believed that speech in the modern world was losing its power.(21) She argued that this loss was partially the result of politicians and political writers misusing political words because they were failing to make distinctions when discussing complex political concepts. A modern example of this loss of distinction is how many right-wing political writers in America often use the word socialism to denote something undesirable, or to castigate their opponents. However, when they do so they fail to make any kind of distinctions between the various types of socialist regimes that existed in the world. Is the socialism they denounce Norway’s democratic-socialism, or Russian socialism, or Chinese socialism? These three examples of socialist regimes have very distinct differences. Thus we can see an example of how speech can lose its power to accurately explain political concepts when people fail to make important distinctions.
Arendt believed that the lack of making distinctions was also connected to what she saw as the “functionalization of all concepts and ideas.”(22) This occurs when people concern themselves only with the functions of certain concepts and ideas, rather than understanding the intricate details of the ideas. Arendt used an example that showed how some people often called communism a “new religion, despite its avowed atheism, because it [supposedly] fulfills socially, psychologically, and emotionally the same function traditional religion fulfilled.”(23) However, she believed that this functionalizing leads people to confusing the political issues because people who suggest that communism is a religion will then not concern themselves with what bolshevism actually is as an “ideology or as [a] form of government, nor in what its spokesmen have to say for themselves”, but only concern themselves with the function of communism (i.e., that it provides the same function of worshiping some higher deity). As she said, “it is as though I had the right to call the heel of my shoe a hammer because, I, like most women, use it to drive nails into the wall.”(24) Another problem with the functionalization of ideas is that people can then use their analysis to “draw quite different conclusions from such equations.”(25) For example, Arendt argued that a conservative could then draw the conclusion that because “communism can fulfill the same function as religion” that this analysis is “the best proof that religion is necessary.”(26) Or, on the contrary, liberals could draw the conclusion that this analysis proves why only “true secularism [could] cure us” of the influence of religion on politics.(27)
The issue of functionalization that Arendt wrote about in the late 1960s is still very much alive and well today. In some circles of leftist political writings we can see examples of people suggesting that sports, or war, are the “new religion” in America. A leftist social critic, Chris Hedges, makes exactly this claim in an article called “Kneeling in Fenway Park to the Gods of War.”(28) The thesis of his article suggests that the U.S. military and sports are the “new religion” in America, and that they are as “unassailable as Jesus.” However, in order to make his point he provides a perfect example of blurring the distinctions between religion, militarism, and sports when he suggests that the military is fulfilling the same function as not only religion, but also sports.
Hedges establishes the idea that the military and sports are America’s new religion with his very first sentence “On Saturday I went to one of the massive temples across the country where we celebrate our state religion.” The temples are sports stadiums, and the religion is war and sports. And while visiting these stadiums we see “religious reverie… used to justify our bloated war budget and endless wars.” There can be no doubt that over the past few decades there has been a steady increase in the display of militarism at sporting events; however, as a long- time fan of sports I can remember the days when this linkage was not the case. But, Hedges doesn’t make this distinction; on the contrary, he actually suggests that “the heroes of war and the heroes of sports are indistinguishable in militarized societies.”
And to show Arendt’s point about how people will then “draw quite different conclusions from [the] equations” that are put forth by those who functionalize concepts and ideas we can simply look at the public comment sections of websites that published Hedges’ article. The examples I read through are from people on a progressive website, commondreams.org, and in them we see people draw various conclusions (and I paraphrase): “sports are competitive and are part of the essential human urge to dominate all others and therefore they should all eventually be abolished” and “sports trump everything else in society, and it is the reason why the uphill battle for societal change is so difficult.”
At any rate, Hedges’ article clearly shows how the functionalization process produces confusion by “blurring the distinctive lines.”(29) A person who understands this process is left with: what exactly is the political problem here? Is it the Pentagon that uses sporting events to promote militarism? Are sports the problem? Are both of them the problem? Do war and sports really provide the same function as religion? Hedges, no doubt, is bringing up an important point about the rise of U.S. militarism, but in his functionalizing of key concepts we see him ignoring the intricacies of these three distinct institutions for the purpose of charging the secular two of serving the same “worshipping” function as religion. As Orwell once stated, “people who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning – they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another – but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying.”(30) Thus in the process people who functionalize key concepts and ideas unfortunately fail to bring any clarity to the issues.
Arendt was not the only political thinker to recognize the degradation of political discourse during her time. George Orwell was another political thinker who recognized the role that the abuse and misuse of political words, and the decay of language as a whole, would play during 1930s and 40s. Orwell’s experience of this temporal phenomenon was quite different from Arendt’s experience, and he offers us unique insights into the abuse and misuse of language.
In his essay “Politics and the English Language” Orwell argued that the “political chaos” [of the thirties was] connected with the decay of language.”(31) It is also likely that his observation of the decay of language prompted his now famous formulation in 1984: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” Orwell observed the overall debasement of language in all areas of modern prose. But he argued that the problem was not “due simply to the bad influence of this or that writer,” but rather was the result of the overall decline of language in society.(32) He argued that one aspect of this decline was related to a trend in “modern prose [that was moving] away from concreteness” and towards the use of abstract and vague phraseology.(33)
Orwell used a verse from Ecclesiastes as an example of concrete language versus abstract language. The verse states, “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” He stated that the words race and battle are examples of “concrete illustrations” because they produce concrete-like images in our minds when we read them. Orwell wrote that a modern writer would be more likely to write these same lines as: “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity.”(34) He suggests that this phrasing is abstract and vague because it fails to usher in a concrete image in the reader’s mind of what the author is really trying to describe.
Orwell also saw how the use of abstract and vague language is worsened by the use of indeterminate political words, and that this misuse was especially problematic in the political world. He argued that many important political words have become indeterminate because people cannot agree on a given meaning, and that they use words to bring emotive responses out in people. The capitalist propaganda says, “Communism is godless and evil!” And the communist propaganda says, “Capitalism is slavery and exploitation!” Orwell showed how words like democracy, socialism, and freedom have “several different meanings.” He then went on to give an example when he wrote, “it is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.”(35) The endless praise by American politicians and media pundits claiming America as the greatest democracy in the world certainly comes to mind here – especially given the recent studies by political scientists that show America does not actually resemble a democracy.(36)
Orwell argued that the other major issue of political writings and speeches, which contributes to the degradation of political discourse, is that they often promote the “defense of the indefensible.” Such issues that often involve extremely difficult choices. For example, the life or death choices that states often have to make in times of war. As Orwell noted, “the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face.” Therefore, political writers, journalists and politicians will instead use language that “consist[s] largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”(37) This ploy is used to conceal the brutal aspects of politics, rather than to bring the argument fully into the light of public discourse. The Bush administration’s use of torture and calling it “enhanced interrogation” would be a perfect modern example.
Orwell argued that the abuse of political words, or the use of vague language, then gets amplified through the use of propaganda and imitation. Political writers and politicians are mostly attached to a particular political party, or political ideology. Orwell stated that their manifestos and speeches are all highly similar in that one never finds “a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech.”(38) In other words, politicians use hackneyed words and vague language in their writings and speeches. This tendency, Orwell believed, recurs because partisanship “seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style”(39) leading faithful followers of parties, or ideologies, to repeat the same lifeless talking points throughout society. Orwell’s point can certainly be observed in today’s world. For example, if one influential partisan starts claiming that President Obama is a Marxist, faithful partisan followers are likely to repeat the claim.
Both Orwell’s and Arendt’s insights into some of the causes of the degradation of political language can still be observed in today’s political discourse. However, before we move forward to look at the degradation in today’s political discourse we need to see if the abuse and misuse of language were a problem during any other time periods. In other words, were the abuse and misuse of political language something that started to appear only during the early 20th Century, and have they continued up to today? Or does this problem have much deeper origins? To understand these questions we will explore the use of political language in Ancient Greece, and then examine the use of political language during early 19th century America.
Plato and Tocqueville: Language in Democracy
The most obvious place to start researching whether or not political language was ever debased during earlier time periods, similar to what Arendt and Orwell observed, would be to read the ancient works of the Greek political philosophers. And by doing so one would eventually discover Plato’s views on the debasement of language during his time. In the Republic, Plato envisioned his ideal utopian state, and throughout the book he went into great detail about the problems that arise in the various types of political systems.
The ideal state that Plato wanted to build was a republic that would be ruled by the elder philosophers. It would be similar to an aristocracy, though it is important to note that Plato’s aristocrats, or the philosopher rulers, would be people who were selfless and without property. His viewpoints on why the ideal state would be a republic ruled by a selfless aristocracy was likely influenced by the fact that it was the Athenian democracy that had put his friend, Socrates, to death based on trumped up charges. Thus in the Republic we see Plato’s criticism of democracy come to the fore.
Plato wrote that democracies have some of the “most beautiful constitutions,” and that the “free men” living within the city would be “full of freedom and liberty of speech” allowing men to do whatever pleases them.(40) Freedom and liberty of speech is quite the familiar concept to the American, and would seem like the only way to live. But to Plato such was not the case. He argued that whenever there is too much regard for the “liberty of action” that man would then “arrange his own private life [in this democracy] just as it pleased him” and that this mentality amongst all its citizens would eventually destroy the city.(41) Plato argued that this “do whatever one pleases” mentality would result in people’s mainly pursuing the unnecessary desires and pleasures in life, rather than pursuing the four cardinal virtues that lead people to truth and reason, to right living and the good life, which he believed was necessary for an ideal state.
Plato argued that the young children growing up in a democratic state of affairs would become socialized in “parsimony and ignorance” through their parents’ “lack of knowledge of right upbringing.”(42) As he stated, many of the people would be “empty of learning and beautiful practices and without words of truth, which are indeed the best sentinels and guardians in the minds of men.”(43) And this lack of a proper education and of adherence to the four virtues for right living would leave people susceptible to being manipulated by “liars and imposters” who use “false words and opinions” to propagate their interests throughout society.(44) Plato argued that many of these liars and imposters would eventually win over the people as they pushed their false words and opinions, and by doing so they would begin to debase all truthful speech. Plato wrote, “Shame they dub Silliness… Temperance they dub Cowardice” and they would then glorify their “licentiousness and immodesty” and “call them by soft names – Violence is now Good Breeding, Anarchy is Liberty, Licentiousness is Magnificence, Immodesty is Courage.”(45)
One cannot help but see that what Plato is describing could plausibly be what led Orwell to write “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength.” But the important point is the effect that he saw democracy had on language during his time. Plato was living during a time that saw the demise of Athenian democracy. There were certainly many factors that led to this demise; however, through Plato’s insights we can see how language was misused and abused during the ancient struggles of who should rule whom. Thus we also see why Plato would argue against democracy, and for a republic that had aristocratic rulers who would implement a strict censorship of ideas and education throughout society. In other words, Plato’s work shows us an example of a person living during a time that was experiencing the ill effects and disintegration of democratic rule, prompting him to argue for the necessity of aristocratic rule.
So the next question to ask is: did any other political thinker write about the effect that democracy had on language? The answer to this question will now take us to the work of Tocqueville and to America during the early 19th Century. However, it is important that I first point out the obvious difference between Plato’s observations on language in democracies compared to Tocqueville’s; namely, Tocqueville was living during a time when aristocratic rule was disintegrating, and democratic rule was re-emerging from its long slumber. Plato, on the contrary, was experiencing the disintegration of democratic rule and arguing for aristocratic rule. Thus the difference between these two thinkers gives us an interesting opportunity to look at the issue of language in democracies from two different angles.
In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to study its prisons and penitentiaries. But he would end up observing and studying all of America’s institutions as well as its customs and manners, and later turned his two-year study into his famous book Democracy in America. His study would also briefly focus on the use of language in democracies compared to aristocracies. Tocqueville explained that “few new words are coined” in aristocratic countries because things rarely changed, and even when new things came into existence the words given to them would “be designated by known words whose meaning has been determined by tradition.”(46)
In democratic countries new ideas and things are constantly coming into existence. Tocqueville argued that the constant change in democratic countries ends up “changing the character of the language.” He thought that this change happens because the new words that come into existence to explain new ideas, or things, are generally created by a “majority [that] is more engaged in… political and commercial interests,”(47) rather than by the people who are engaged in the study of languages, philosophy, etc., and who understand the etymological roots of language (i.e., the dead languages of Latin, Greek and Hebrew). And since the people who generally create new words often do not understand the etymological roots of their language, they will borrow words from the living languages and give new meaning to a word or expression that is already in use. This act creates words with double meanings and begins to render them ambiguous and indeterminate. I will now skip forward in time to show a modern example of what Tocqueville was explaining.
A representative modern example of the process of how words end up with double meanings is the word libertarian. In the mid-twentieth century Murray Rothbard “coined” the term libertarian to describe his anarcho-capitalist economic theories. However, the term libertarian had been in use since around the 1870s in Europe by the French anarchists who began to call themselves libertarians to get around the harsh anti-anarchist French laws. To this day libertarianism in most of Europe is understood as anarchism, an anti-capitalist and anti-socialist ideology.(48) However, in America, and thanks to Rothbard borrowing a word and adopting a new meaning, libertarianism is understood as an ideology that is staunchly pro-capitalist.
With this example we can see how two very different ideologies are now in a sort of competition against each other over the meaning of libertarianism. We can also see how the words in democratic countries that are “coined and adopted for” political and commercial uses will mainly “serve to express the wants of business [and] the passions of party.”(49) In other words, the word libertarian in America is now often used to express the wants of business (getting rid of burdensome government regulation) and has also turned into the rallying cry of the Tea Party. Thus the word, with its new double meaning, has a tendency to cause confusion.(50)
Tocqueville thought that this outcome was one of the more “deplorable consequence[s] of democracy”(51) because it creates just as “much confusion in language as there is in society.”(52) He believed that “harmony and uniformity” in language were an important aspect of clear communication. However, what was happening with language in democratic countries was beginning to create prose usages that “obscure[d] the thoughts they [were] intended to convey”(53) because the thoughts were surrounded by ambiguous and indeterminate words.
Tocqueville would also study the press and observed how journalists greatly affected public opinion. He argued that the problem of the abuse and misuse of language in America were amplified through the freedom of the press. When writing about journalists he noted that they had a tendency “to assail the characters of [political] individuals” rather than engaging in any kind of reasoned political argument. Tocqueville thought that this choice was “deplorable” because of the media’s immense influence on public opinion.
He also wrote that individuals who were held in “high esteem of their fellow- citizens [were] afraid to write in the newspapers.” Though he doesn’t specify, Tocqueville is most likely describing American intellectuals, academics, and highly regarded politicians. He does not address the exact reasons why they are afraid, but he does write that the highly esteemed people in society would generally “only write in the papers when they choose to address the people in their own name; as, for instance, when they are called upon to repel calumnious imputations, and to correct a misstatement of facts.”(54) The absence of intellectuals and academics writing in the press created an intellectual vacuum and allowed journalists and editors to fill the vacuum by publishing “knowledge of certain facts,” but often doing so in a way that “alter[ed] and distort[ed] those facts [so] that a journalist [could] contribute to the support of his own views,” rather than writing an objective analysis.(55) Furthermore, the vacuum was filled with a large variety of newspapers and publications that circulated throughout America. Thus the harmony and uniformity of language that Tocqueville believed were so important for clear communication was basically non- existent in America.
To make matters worse, Tocqueville observed an American public that had a propensity to adopt the media’s “propositions without inquiry” and that the public would then “cling to their opinions from pride” and also “because they exercise their own free-will in choosing them.”(56) In other words, the press had a tendency to push personal views in order to appease the populace or sell subscriptions; and the populace had a tendency to cling to these opinions, rather than investigate the media’s claims. The people’s repeating what they hear without inquiry certainly complements the point Plato was making in regard to some people’s being won over by the “liars and imposters” who spread their “false words and opinions” throughout society. Furthermore, it complements Orwell’s insights into how the faithful followers of political parties and ideologies will repeat the same lifeless talking points of their respective parties or ideologies. Thus we can see an example of how the press and political propaganda amplify the degradation of political discourse.
Tocqueville doubted that there was anything that could be done to reverse what was happening to language in democratic countries, but he still felt it was necessary to highlight the effects of democracy on language. So it would seem appropriate to ask: was Tocqueville against democracy, like Plato? Or were there any redeeming qualities to be found in democracy? And how do Arendt’s and Orwell’s insights into the degradation of political language relate to Plato and Tocqueville’s views on the issues of language in democracy?
The answer to Tocqueville’s position on democracy is probably similar to Plato’s position: they both observed that democracy had positive and negative aspects. However, the purpose of Tocqueville’s work was not to praise democracy in America, nor to build an ideal utopian state, like Plato, but was to observe and study democracy in action. In her work on Tocqueville, Arendt pointed out that his studies in America, and his experience during the turbulent times of the French revolution, might have ended in his despair for the new emerging world. Arendt wrote, “For what else but despair could have inspired Tocqueville’s assertion that ‘since the past has ceased to throw its light upon the future the mind of man wanders in obscurity?’”(57) Arendt argued that this despair is likely why Tocqueville went on to suggest that “a new science of politics is needed for a new world.”(58) In other words, the emerging new world of democracy was severing the hold that the aristocratic and monarchical traditions – the very traditions that had guided humanity through so many centuries – had previously enjoyed, and a new science of politics was needed to understand the new and rapidly changing world.
Arendt’s work would also suggest that she might have been in agreement with Tocqueville about the loss of tradition and the need to find a new science of politics that anchored us into something more stable. Arendt wrote that “with the loss of tradition we have lost the thread which safely guided us through the vast realms of the past, but this thread was also the chain fettering each successive generation to the predetermined aspect of the past.”(59) This insight by Arendt seems to create a paradox, and one that Tocqueville may have been struggling with too when he argued for the need of a new science for politics.
However, for Arendt, the paradox lessens if we understand that she was mainly concerned about the loss of tradition because she felt that it endangered “the whole dimension of the past.”(60) The reason that Arendt was concerned about saving the past, rather than tradition per se, was that she believed that “[f]or human beings thinking of past matters means moving in the dimension of depth, striking roots and thus stabilizing themselves, so as not to be swept away by whatever may occur.”(61) This point complements Plato’s argument on how people in democracies can become ignorant and easily manipulated by the liars and imposters, who push false words and opinions in society, because the people had failed to properly learn how to reason and understand the greater truths – an understanding that requires thinking of past matters. Arendt’s point also complements Orwell’s main reasoning for writing about the decay of language: to raise awareness about the degradation of language in the hopes that people would free themselves “from the worst follies of orthodoxy”(62) that spread by imitation, and would thus begin the “necessary first step towards political regeneration.”(63)
Arendt also recognized that tradition often passed down the lessons of the past to each successive generation. However she was not suggesting that democracy did not work, or that we should go back to aristocratic rule, or that saving tradition would inform us how we should live; rather, she meant that understanding the past would offer insights and ways for us to think through the modern political questions that continually seem to perplex us. Furthermore, Arendt argued that one of the most important things that we can do when we gather around the political table to discuss these complex issues is to remember to make distinctions. If there was one tradition that Arendt likely wished to save, it was probably traditional political thought because, in her opinion, it still offered many insights useful for understanding today’s political problems. Are Plato’s and Tocqueville’s views of what happened to language in democracies not parallel?
Case Study: Modern Media and the Parroting Effect
Now that we understand a little more about the importance of language for political life, and the effect that democracy has on language, I would like to move to the final part of the essay to show the role that the modern media play in amplifying the debasement of political discourse. There are plenty of current examples to show how political language is abused and becomes degraded on a large scale through the amplification by the press in America. On a daily basis media pundits can be seen habitually distorting and altering facts to support their ideological views, and in some cases attempting to give new meaning to political words already in use, rather than giving any sort of reasoned and balanced analysis. A great source to observe the parroting effect this distortion has on average people can easily be observed in the public-comment sections of online news sources and other social media sites.
A specific example will bring us back to the original question of how the word socialism has come to have starkly different definitions throughout society. In the past few years, right-wing media pundits frequently have called the Democrats socialists, or claim that President Obama is a Marxist. In fact, if we take a quick glance at the websites of people like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, we see article after article that instructs their audience that President Obama and the Democrats are socialists. And if we look at the comment sections of online news sources there is example after example of people parroting the talking points of Beck and Limbaugh.(64) The assertions that President Obama is a Marxist are clearly not coming from academia because this claim would not be considered as serious. So where else could people possibly be getting these assertions?
Glenn Beck has dedicated numerous shows to attempting to prove why President Obama is a Marxist. In one, he gives us an excellent example of Tocqueville’s point about the press. Within the first minutes of his show Beck starts to “track [President Obama] into private life [in an attempt to] disclose all [his] weaknesses and errors.”(65) Beck believes that in order to understand the “political structure” of President Obama we need to take a look at his “foundation” (i.e., his family and his upbringing). Beck suggests that if we do so we will be left wondering how President Obama did “not become anything but a Marxist with [his] childhood.”(66) In other words, there are so many early life connections to supposed Marxists that one should believe it would be strange for President Obama not to be a Marxist.
Immediately after Beck tracks President Obama into his private life, he proceeds to give us another example of Tocqueville’s insight by “altering and distorting” facts to “contribute to the support of his own views.”(67) One of the facts that Beck attempts to distort is the sound bite of President Obama telling Joe the plumber that “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” Beck then tells his audience, “Marx said that. Madison never said that. Our founders all warned against that.”(68)
It is a fact that President Obama has suggested on numerous occasions that spreading the wealth around is good for society. However, Beck distorts this fact by simply removing the context. The context is that President Obama is speaking of spreading the wealth around by reintroducing a progressive taxation system. And, yes, as Beck and other critics have mentioned elsewhere, it is also a fact that Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto that one of the “generally applicable” measures for a communist revolution would include implementing “a heavy progressive or graduated income tax.”(69) However, is the progressive taxation system found only in Marxism and communist ideology? Or can it be found in other political ideologies and political systems, indeed in capitalist ones such as in Europe?
The short answer to the last question is yes. In fact, the progressive taxation system was first introduced in America by the United States Congress in 1862, and signed into law by President Lincoln, in order to raise money for the Union. Over a half a century later President Roosevelt implemented a steep progressive taxation system as part of the New Deal measures. Thus the logic of Beck would also mean that he would have to denounce President Lincoln and President Roosevelt as Marxists. Of course, that claim would reveal the absurdity of Beck’s argument, which is simply the result of his failing to make relevant distinctions and falsely portraying that the progressive taxation system provides the same function as communism.
Furthermore, through Tocqueville’s perceptiveness we can see a clear example of how a popular media pundit abuses political words and degrades political discourse by trying to give new meaning to the word socialism (i.e., socialism is what President Obama and the Democrats are doing). And because the populace has a propensity to cling to a favored journalist’s opinion, rather than investigate the claims, we see how political discourse gets degraded on a large scale; possibly millions of people now believe that the policies of President Obama and the Democrats are “socialist.”(70) And, sadly, we can also see how this false claim diverts people from having honest conversations about why things like the progressive taxation system were introduced in America by the New Deal Liberals, and not Marxists, during the Great Depression. So why do Beck and other pundits make false claims?
The answer to the last question is not something that we can concretely answer. But we can safely assume that Beck plays a role in the competing nature of the various narratives found in party agendas and the antagonistic ideologies found throughout society. Beck openly speaks of his “free market” position and his support for the Republican Party. Thus Beck’s interest is to denounce the Democrats and any ideologies that are in a sort of competition with his ideology and party agenda. In other words, Beck is part of the same phenomenon that Arendt and Orwell observed that led to speech becoming degraded during their time. Thus the next question would be: does he know the depiction to be false but uses it anyway?
When Orwell made his point about euphemisms as well as words used as pejoratives, he suggested that these were “often used in a consciously dishonest way” by politicians and political pundits. He wrote that “the person who uses [euphemisms and vague language] has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”(71) Orwell’s view also complements the point Plato made about the “liars and imposters” who pushed their “false words and opinions” in society in order to win people to their side. In other words, does Beck use the term Marxist and socialist in a consciously dishonest way to demonize his opponents? Or is he unconsciously helping to degrade political discourse through the bad habits and imitative style of political partisans?
At this point the only way to answer the first question would be to speculate because there is no hard evidence to prove that Beck is being consciously dishonest. Suggesting that Beck is a liar, or an imposter, might not be an appropriate accusation to make without the proper evidence. However, there is no need to understand Beck’s personal motives, or to make accusations about his character, to show how he abuses political language and helps degrade political discourse. The fact is that he is spreading false words and opinions throughout society in order to win people over to his side. It is no coincidence that Marxists and socialists uniformly disown and harshly criticize President Obama, calling him such things as “a toady of capitalism” and “political front man for the imperialist war machine.”(72) These caricatures are arguably equally misleading. Most political scientists reject the ideology-inspired depictions of both sides. In other words, the people who have spent years objectively reading and studying Marx, Marxism and other socialist literature, and who understand the world that Marx wanted to create through his work, reject the ideological motives of Beck. It really is as simple as reading and understanding Marx’s work to see why Beck is spreading false words and opinions.
So can anything be done to stop media pundits and politicians from abusing political words and degrading political discourse? Plato would likely respond that only censorship and a world ruled by the philosopher rulers provide the answer to this problem. And, unfortunately, as Tocqueville wrote, “in order to enjoy the inestimable benefits which the liberty of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils which it engenders.”(73) In other words, the freedom of the press is too beneficial to alter because of the abuses by a relative, though influential, few. The main reason Orwell wrote his essay was that he believed the problem was reversible and that people could rid themselves of the “bad habits [that] spread by imitation.”(74) If people took care to correct these bad habits it would be possible for a person to “think more clearly.”(75) And if people could think more clearly, they would likely put people like Beck out of business because they would stop listening to his false words and opinions.
Arendt argued that one possible way to correct these bad habits would be to remember the importance of spoken words, and the meanings that we have given them. When encountering the variety and complexities of the things of this world we can at least remember to make distinctions while trying to understand the various political concepts and political systems in the world. It is only through making these distinctions that we will be begin to understand the world in a clearer and more accurate way. Political words should be common to us all, like how the word water, or tree, is common to us all. Words do not care about our personal bias, ideologies, or the political parties that we support; they are simply the tools we use to understand each other and the things of this world.
It certainly is possible for us to reach agreements on the meanings of words we use to understand the political world without giving up our partisanship. This practice, in fact, is common in academia. And I’d argue that we would all be the better for it because we could finally have meaningful conversations about our diverse and complex world. The diversity of our world can be a wonderful thing. But believing that a world where everything can be called anything else will only lead to confusion and the prolongation of the debasement of political language.
1 W.H. Auden, “We Too Had Known Golden Hours.” Quoted from Hannah Arendt’s speech that was delivered upon receiving Denmark’s Sonning Prize in 1975, and published in Responsibility and Judgment. Page 10.
2 Orwell, George. George Orwell Essays. “Politics and the English Language.” page 959
3 The “World Socialist Website” is a place where today’s socialists publish their perspectives. A quick glance at the various articles quickly reveals a starkly different picture of President Obama and the Democrats. http://www.wsws.org
4 Point of clarification: when I speak of the standards in mainstream political discourse I am excluding the standards that exist in academia.
5 Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Page 176.
6 Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind, page 99.
7 Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition, page 52. 8 Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind, page 100.
9 Arendt. The Human Condition, page 52.
10 Arendt, Hannah. The Promise of Politics. “Introduction into Politics.” Page 95.
11 Arendt, Hannah. Responsibility and Judgment. “Reflections on Little Rock.” Paraphrased from Arendt’s point on making the distinction between “the three realms of human life – the political, the social and the private.”
12 Arendt, The Human Condition, page 4.
13 Ibid., page 177.
14 Ibid., page 179.
15 Arendt, The Human Condition. Page 7.
16 Ibid., page 179.
17 Ibid., page 176.
18 Ibid., page 184.
20 Idid., page 176.
21 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, page 4.
22 Hannah Arendt. Between Past and Future. “What is Authority?” page 101.
23 Ibid., page 102.
28 Hedges, Chris. “Kneeling in Fenway Park to the Gods of War.” http://www.commondreams.org/view/2014/07/08-1
29 Arendt. “What is Authority.” Page 103.
30 Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.” George Orwell Essays. Page 962.
31 Ibid., Page 966.
32 Ibid., Page 954.
33 Ibid., page 960.
35 Ibid., Page 959.
36 Gilens, Martin. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens.”
37 Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.” Page 963.
38 Ibid., page 962.
40 Plato. Great Dialogues of Plato: “Republic.” Page 419.
42 Ibid., page 422-23.
43 Ibid., page 423.
45 Ibid., page 423-24.
46 Tocqueville. Democracy in America. Volume II, Chapter XVI. Page 582.
47 Ibid., page 583.
48 Noam Chomsky’s interview on libertarian-socialism, and ways the meaning of libertarianism in America is an anomaly. http://www.alternet.org/civil- liberties/noam-chomsky-kind-anarchism-i-believe-and-whats-wrong-libertarians
49 Tocqueville, page 583.
50 A good example of the confusion can be seen when a person calls themselves a “libertarian-socialist.” This is a strand of anarchism. However, a person who understands libertarianism to be a staunchly pro-capitalist ideology will believe that libertarian-socialism is an oxymoron. How could a hard-core capitalist also be a socialist, they ask? However, the reason that people call themselves libertarian- socialists is because they adhere to the much longer held tradition that understands libertarianism as a form of anarchism. There is a variety of anarchist literature that writes of this problem.
51 Tocqueville, page 584.
52 Ibid., page 586.
53 Ibid., page 587.
57 Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future. “The Concept of History.” Page 77.
58 Tocqueville, quoted by Arendt in “The Concept of History.” Page 77.
59 Arendt, “What is Authority?” page 94.
61 Arendt, as quoted in Young-Bruehl, Elizabeth, “Hannah Arendt: For the Love of the World.”
62 Orwell. Page 967.
63 Ibid., page 955.
64 To prove this point about people parroting the idea that the Democrats are socialist one only needs to visit websites like http://www.foxnews.com, or http://www.breitbart.com, and read through the comments sections of the various news columns that are critical of President Obama, and the Democrats.
65 Tocqueville quote from above.
66 Ibid. Glen Beck, transcript printed on Foxnews.com: The first part is Beck showing “Obama’s Foundation” http://www.foxnews.com/story/2010/04/06/barack-obama-foundation/.
67 Tocqueville, same quote from above.
68 Glenn Beck, http://www.foxnews.com/story/2010/04/07/glenn-beck-barack- obama-socialist/
69 Marx and Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” found in The Marx-Engels Reader. page 490. It is important to note that the ten steps that are frequently cited by people like Beck were steps that would “be different for different countries” and that they were temporary measures that would be used to bring about the end goal: the dissolution of classes and class antagonisms, and a utopian communist world “where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
70 Again, the proof of this can easily be observed by checking out the comment sections of right-wing online news sources.
71 Orwell. “Politics and the English Language.” Page 959.
72 World Socialist Web Site. “Obama’s Drone Warfare: Assassination Made Routine.” https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/04/25/pers-a25.html
73 Tocqueville, page 211.
74 Ibid., page 955.
Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future. “The Concept of History.” New York: The Viking Press. 1961.
Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future. “What is Authority?” New York: The Viking Press. 1961.
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1958.
Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1971. Arendt, Hannah. The Promise of Politics. “Introduction into Politics.” New York:
Schocken Books. 2005.
Arendt, Hanah. Responsibility and Judgement. “Prologue: Arendt’s speech at Denmark’s Sonning Prize in 1975.” New York: Schocken Books. 2003.
Beck, Glenn. “Obama’s Foundation.” http://www.foxnews.com
Chomsky, Noam. “Interview on Libertarian-Socialism.” http://www.alternet.org
Gilens, Martin. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Perspectives on Politics, Volume 12, Issue 3, 2014.
Hedges, Chris. “Kneeling at Fenway Park to the Gods of War.”
Marx and Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1978.
Orwell, George. George Orwell Essays. “Politics and the English Language.” New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2002.
Plato. Great Dialogues of Plato. “The Republic.” New York: New American Library. 2008.
40 Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. New York: A Bantam Classic. 2000.
Young-Bruehl, Elizabeth. Hannah Arendt: For the Love of the World. Yale University Press. 2004.
World Socialist Website. http://www.wsws.org