Opinion Columns & Blogs

Never underestimate the power of words and language

Lynne Geller
Lynne Geller sbloom@theolympian.com

Words matter. What you say matters. Angela Carter says, “Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.”

Our president is making language meaningless. Consider this: He made at least 3,001 false or misleading claims in his first 466 days. Lies are his daily fodder, he says whatever is expedient in the moment and has no attachment to truth. Anything he doesn’t like at the moment is “fake news.” As he commented when he wanted to shut down NBC for reporting something he didn’t like: “It's frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever they want to write.”

The role of a free press in a democracy is to inform people and hold the powerful to account; a safeguard against authoritarianism.

There is a lot being written on Trump’s authoritarian leanings. Dictatorships depend on the control of information. One of the first actions of a dictator is to censor all forms of free speech — from burning books to controlling language.

The Trump administration already is making changes to our language, particularly around science. The term “climate change” has mostly disappeared from government websites. At the Centers for Disease Control, officials are encouraged to refrain from using certain words (“vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based”). The administration appears to be controlling terminology to suppress well-established truths in science and take language about science in a more ideological direction.

Words matter. At their most fundamental, words are the tools of thought. As words lose their meaning, our capacity for critical thinking diminishes.

Language influences thought and action. The words we use to describe things — to ourselves and others — affects how we and they think and act.

How a problem is framed will impact how it is resolved. For example: What happens if you describe a period of slow economic gain as “stalled” versus “ailing”? If it is stalled, then that points to the need for a quick solution, a jumpstart. But if it is ailing, then we must look at long-term care. Whoever controls language controls the debate, defining the problem and the solution. Choose your metaphors carefully.

And it is not just words, but how they are used. Many of the techniques Trump uses in his speeches are time-tested propaganda strategies:

  • appealing to voters’ emotions, rather than their intellects;
  • constantly repeating a handful of simplistic ideas in easy-to-remember phrases (“Make America Great Again,” “America First”);
  • using us-versus-them formulations and language about minorities and immigrants that play to audiences’ resentments and fears;
  • relentlessly assailing his “enemies” with memorable epithets (“Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted”)
  • repetition — just keep saying the same thing over and over, whether it is true or not (the Post Office is losing money because of Amazon), until even the sturdiest independent thinkers may begin to question their perceptions.

One of the greatest dangers of this administration is that chaos and lies become normalized. With so much confusing and contradictory stuff thrown at us every day, how can we sort things out? We become de-sensitized; it is all just too much. We allow the bar to be set so low that we’ll need diving gear to find it again.

To identify and find solutions to societal issues, we need common ground. Factual truths help us get our bearings in the real world, and society needs facts to allow for public debate and provide a check on abuses of power. No wonder this is such an anti-science administration. Tocqueville wrote: “No society can prosper without common beliefs.” Trump is about divisiveness, an us-them psychology. He seems to want the U.S. to be a country of unquestioning adoring fans who just follow his lead. "If I say do it, they're gonna do it," Trump said. "That's what leadership is all about."

The Trump universe leaves me feeling confused, at sea, like there is nothing solid to hold on to. Our democracy is slowly being chipped away at it before our eyes. Vigilance is required more than ever. Don’t let chaos and divisiveness become acceptable. Pick your battles, use your words. We can survive this.

Lynne Geller is a journalist and educator, and a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. Reach her via email at lynneboc2018@gmail.com