Language and Politics

The quote of the day comes from Roy Peter Clark’s Help! for Writers. This is an excellent book that gives plenty of practical writing tips from organizing your research to editing for clarity. He also makes an important point about political language.

Our political discourse has devolved into a war of slogans from the left and the right, a form of propaganda that reduces complicated issues to simple messages designed to stir emotions rather than appeal to reason. On the most contentious issues, each side battles not just for ideas of policies but for the language that will give them the high ground.

For abortion it’s the child versus the fetus, life versus choice. For immigration it’s protecting our borders versus being the land of immigrants, undocumented workers versus illegal aliens. In matters of actual war, one side tells us that “freedom is on the march” and the other side wants to “cut and run” One candidate declares himself the candidate of “change,” forcing his opponent to become the candidate of “real change.” (I look forward to the day when a panhandler declares himself the candidate of “spare change.”)

These language choices are not automatic or arbitrary. They are the products of those within the political system who want to sell an idea or a candidate, usually for a narrow interest. The writer must be alert to such abuses of language, call attention to them, and avoid them in his own work.

This is not just advice for writers, but a reminder for all of us not to be manipulated by political language.