I Don’t Think That Means What You Think That Means: The Importance of Language in the National Debate

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Words matter.

That may be a silly statement to put at the outset of a post that people will be reading. My experience with Medium to this point has shown that it is a community of readers and writers. Of course, words matter!

The fact of the matter, however, is that we seem to be living in a time when words seem to matter less to more people. With the advent of social media, the proliferation of words that we see everyday on countless blogs, Facebook posts, and tweets has become insane. One researcher claims that it would not be unthinkable to say a person sees “on average 490,000 words [in a day]; War & Peace was only 460,000 words.”

Nearly half a million words in a single day. Twitter, even with it’s 280 character limit, can contribute thousands upon thousands of words every single day, especially if one likes to click on links and read some of the articles that get advertised. I know I catch myself doing that on a regular basis throughout the day. The same can be said for one’s Facebook feed. It’s unreal!

And so, being exposed to so many words over the course of the day has the potential to drive down the significance of the words that we see. It’s like the old story about a boy throwing starfish back into the ocean one morning. An old man came up to him and said, “Why are you doing this? Look at all the starfish. You’ll never be able to get all of them back. You’ll barely make a difference.” To which the boy picks up another starfish, throws it into the sea and says, “It made a difference to that one.”

Now, of course, people (okay, preachers like me) usually pull out that story when it comes to messages circling around the difference that we can make, even if it is only to the individual. However, imagine, if you will, that instead of starfish, the boy was tossing out words. Yes, there are thousands upon thousands of words that we see on a daily basis. But this doesn’t diminish their value.

Words have the ability to build up or tear down. To bring joy or sorrow. To heal or to destroy. “It’s cancer.” Only words, right? But those words can be devastating. “It’s a girl!” Only words, right? But those words can bring unspeakable joy.

Here I go being all “preacherly” (yes, I just made up that word), but I’m reminded of the words in the Epistle of James,

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our member, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:5b-10)

What is James saying here? Words matter.

What we say about people — matters.

How we frame our debates and arguments — matters.

This is why I am growing more concerned about the way we are framing our national debates. Words matter, and words are being used to divide, to mock, to destroy.

Most recently, the outcry has been in reference to Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments when she tweeted “It’s all about the Benjamins baby (followed by music note emojis)” in response to GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threats to punish her for criticism over Israel. The tweet has led to denunciation of Omar as anti-Semitic, and calls for her to resign her position on committees within the House.

Was it Rep. Omar’s intent to make an anti-Semitic comment? Honestly, I don’t believe so. The music notes emoji would seem to imply that she was referencing the 1997 song by Puff Daddy. More specifically, Rep. Omar is taking a shot at those who receive funding from pro-Israel lobbyists. However, words matter.

The perception that what she was saying was anti-Semitic is much more important than the intent. To her credit, Rep. Omar has issued an apology for her comments, in which she explicitly states that it was not her intent to offend Jewish Americans. She has also clarified her comments, more precisely aiming at the “problematic role of lobbyists in our politics”.

And, just so we are being fair to both sides of the political spectrum here, there are Republicans who have also had more than their fair share of terrible word choices, who have not been hit nearly as hard as Rep. Omar has been in the last few days.

More specifically, let’s take a look at some of the comments by the leader of the Republican Party, President Trump. In his recent State of the Union address, President Trump called for a rejection of the “politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution — and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good. Together, we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make.”

That is a great call to action. Those are some great words.

If only he meant them.

Why do I say that? Because I have access to Twitter. In the days since he said these words (just one week ago), here are the things that President Trump has said on Twitter:

“…It is all a GIANT AND ILLEGAL HOAX, developed long before the election itself, but used as an excuse by the Democrats as to why Crooked Hillary Clinton lost the Election! Someday the Fake News Media will turn honest & report that Donald J. Trump as actually a GREAT Candidate!” — Feb 8, 2019

“Crooked Hillary Clinton”. We have seen time and time again that President Trump loves to give people nicknames. Rarely are they the kind of nicknames that people would actually welcome. In fact, they seem to be the kind of nicknames that bullies bestow upon their prey in school. He hasn’t given this up.

“North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, will become a great Economic Powerhouse. He may surprise some but he won’t surprise me, because I have gotten to know him & fully understand how capable he is. North Korea will become a different kind of Rocket — an Economic one!” — Feb 9, 2019

I’m not going to be one of the voices that says Trump should be completely shunning North Korea. In fact, I think we should engage North Korea. The only way to end the human rights violations that have occurred, and undoubtedly continue to take place, is to engage. That being said, I have a hard time seeing somebody praise another person who has been at the head of such abuses. It’s like somebody claiming that Hitler was a great leader. Sure, if you ignore all the people that died because of him. We can’t. Praising a vicious dictator is not something we should be doing.

“Today Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to by me as Pocahontas, joined the race for President. Will she run as our first Native American presidential candidate, or has she decided that after 32 years, this is not playing so well anymore? See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!” — Feb 9, 2019

Again, we see the nicknames coming back into play. Additionally, we see the word “trail” in all caps, as if to emphasize that word. In case you have forgotten your history, or fell asleep in class that particular day, the Trail of Tears was a series of forced relocations of Native Americans in the United States. A government sanctioned forced relocation, during which many people lost their lives. Between 1831 and 1842, thousands of people were forced to move halfway across the country. And it’s not like they loaded up the UHaul before they left, folks. These were the elderly, women, children, sick, and vulnerable people who were forced to march across nine states to a place that was designated as their new home.

I can’t believe that President Trump wasn’t making a reference to the Trail of Tears, especially when we consider his use of “Pocahontas” and “Native American” in the same tweet. Even if it was not his intention, words matter.

And you know what we haven’t seen? Any kind of apology for this kind of language that President Trump has used repeatedly from the time he was a candidate for the presidency.

If you want to jump all over Rep. Omar for her comments, you had better be all over the President for his. The fact of the matter is that one of the two saw the fallout of these words, and apologized for it. People who are calling for the resignation of Rep. Omar are strangely silent when it comes to the words of the President. They show themselves to be doing nothing more than grandstanding and playing the political game. When there is no consistency in such calls, there is no doubt as to the sincerity of their words. They are little more than opportunistic, and it is obvious.

Folks, I’ll say it again, words matter.

Be careful what you say. Be thoughtful in what you say. Speak kindly, even when you must speak boldly.

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Matt Swisher

Matt Swisher

Just some guy who is looking to make my pocket of the world a better place. Life is a journey; let’s walk together and help each other along the way.