Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Debate: Arguing Semantics

There are two kinds of people: those who think words matter, and those who don't. If you guessed that this blogger/grammar nerd believes in the power of words, you'd be right. Let's start with a disclaimer: I'm not really interested in having a political debate here. If you know me at all or read on, you'll probably be able to predict my vote today (please vote), but I'm not looking to stand on a political soap box or to incite a comment war—there are plenty of people doing that already.

While watching the debates this year, I also followed along on Twitter—at once an enlightening, inspiring, disheartening, and exhilarating experience. Among my favorite debate twitter feeds came Dictonary.com, which posted about the trending word lookups during the debate. (Bestill my beating heart, people were looking up words in the dictionary! So proud.) Here's a sample (click the image to read more):

So, let's start with the word debate. There are many definitions, the two most common being:

(noun) a discussion in which people or groups state different opinions about a subject.
(verb) to argue about (a subject), especially in a formal manner.

My favorite, however, is this: "to consider an action or situation carefully before you decide what to do." That's what our presidential debates should help us do. They should be part of what has been called civil discourse—the notion 
"that people can have very different values and political preferences, but can still discuss these differences in a civil manner (from the National Institute for Civil Discourse). Sadly, as I've said before, our public discourse is rarely civil these days. 

Earlier in the election cycle, I read a great article by the novelist Nicholas Delbanco who argues eloquently for the the importance of the liberal arts, particularly language and literary arts:
"I believe a culture does itself no damage by attending to its language, and the idea that every phrase should and must be scrutinized is central to democracy."
I feel that virtually all of our political discourse has mutated from civil to vitriolic, and that the language we use has sunk to the level of playground bullying. I don't like to engage in that kind of conversation—in virtual shouting matches where no one listens and everyone is angry. Frankly, it gives me a headache.

Not everyone is facile with words, or uses them precisely and with ease. My husband has often said: "English is my second language. I don't have a first." Funny, yes. But is it an explanation or an excuse. Early on, we had one of the marital "discussions" (read fights) that has defined virtually all discussions going forward. Somewhere along the line, he said something to this effect: "I'm not as good as you are with words. What I say and how I say it aren't important. You should know what I mean."

I disagreed. Vehemently. I said that it felt like I'm being made responsible for both sides of the conversation. I hear: "It doesn't matter what I say or how I say it, it's your responsibility to reinterpret it so that I sound good."

I, on the other hand, pride myself on my use of language. I have a strong vocabulary and try think about what I say before I say it. Which means, that when I say something rude or angry or mean, well, I probably mean it. At least at the time. I take no pride in that. Lately, some of my personal discourse has been less than civil, and it's something that concerns me. That's the main reason why I have avoided political discussion this election cycle. But it turns out, I do have just a few words to say about it.

One of our candidates for president doesn't believe in the power of words—"It's just words, folks." In fact, that entire campaign dismissed even its own candidate's words as inconsequential.

But as a writer, I believe that words do matter—that thinking about your words, practicing them, and stating them with passion and compassion, is vitally important.
"Words matter, my friends. And if you are running to be president, or are president of the United States, words can have a tremendous influence." — Hillary Rodham Clinton
 I've only got two more words to say about this election:

Please Vote

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