Political Speech and the Nature of Truth

Language is important. It is the medium through which humans engage with the universe, world, society, and each other. Without language, it has been argued, there would be no thought and therefore humanity as we know it would not be possible. The ability to use language is arguably the most important advantage humans have over other animals, and has contributed more directly than any other technology to our evolution and success/rampant rise as a species. Language is so necessary to our survival, in fact, that any person, entity, or agency responsible for using it in order to document events, or share news and information as they happen should be held to a much higher standard than it seems they currently are. This becomes especially important during key moments in the unfolding of history. Like right now.

The 2016 presidential elections are supremely important for many reasons, and because of that importance, the information necessary for voters to make informed decisions must be communicated clearly and without impediment. Unfortunately this year is no different than every other documented year on record since the beginning of human history as far as the manipulation of language goes.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post published an article by Glenn Kessler claiming that Bernie Sanders was wrong in saying that Hillary Clinton called him unqualified to be president. NBC News under the authorship of Chuck Todd went so far as to paint Sanders as a liar. It all started with an interview between Clinton and Joe Scarborough. He asked if Clinton thought Sanders was unqualified, and she responded in a way that clearly implied her answer was yes, but without actually saying yes (emphasis mine).

SCARBOROUGH: But do you think he is qualified? And do you think he is able to deliver on the things he is promising to all these Democratic voters?
CLINTON: Well, let me put it this way, Joe. I think that what he has been saying about the core issue in his whole campaign doesn’t seem to be rooted in an understanding of either the law or the practical ways you get something done. And I will leave it to voters to decide who of us can do the job that the country needs, who can do all aspects of the job, both on the economic domestic issues and on national security and foreign policy.

So, what did Clinton say here? Well, knowing that the job of president is to understand and execute laws, and she said that Sanders doesn’t have that understanding, it seems that she said he’s not qualified. For example, if one was told after a job interview to be a chef, that “I think that what you’ve been saying about food isn’t rooted in an understanding on how to get meals made,” it would be clear that the interviewer felt you were unqualified. Being a chef requires an understanding of food in the same way being president requires an understanding of law and the execution of it. Clinton did what party line politicians have always done which is rather than use language to clearly address a question, she used it to protect herself and obfuscate her meaning. Since she never said the word “unqualified” she can claim innocence, when of course it’s clear what she means if it’s given a little thought.

Another note here is that all journalists are trained to understand the difference between saying and meaning. One of the core functions of a journalist is to extract meaning from statements in which it has been obfuscated. Kessler, Scarborough, Todd, and all of the other journalists who jumped on this bandwagon are culpable in the obfuscation of meaning by not calling it out and revealing the meaning behind what Clinton said. Sanders in fact was telling the truth when he claimed in Philedelphia that Clinton said he was unqualified. She did say it, because “saying” is the act of “utter[ing] words so as to convey information, an opinion, a feeling or intention”.

Of course, this kind of obfuscation is not new. This year is the 70th anniversary of one of George Orwell’s most enduring and relevant essays: Politics and the English Language. Within it, he analyzes and deconstructs political writing as a bastardization of language. Unfortunately, what he says is still wildly relevant (which he predicted).

Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

It is the job, then, of politicians and their cohorts to allude to truth without revealing it, to imply meaning without implicating themselves, and to obfuscate reality to benefit themselves and their goals. This was true for Orwell in 1946, and it’s true for us in 2016. And just as Orwell felt compelled to comment on the use of languge in his time, we need journalists and analysts now with the courage to comment on its use in ours. The use of language in this way masks truth and suppresses the search for real meaning. However, this pattern of language use can also be used to reveal those who are speaking the truth. Orwell again (emphasis mine):

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech.

In other words, when that person appears among the political class who speaks clearly, who does not adhere to party lines, who is considered unorthodox and perhaps dangerous to the status quo, who is vivid with words and speech, it is a moment in which we should listen. It is a moment to recognize the differences and judge for ourselves whether what this outsider is saying is worthy of merit. This is the core of the process for seeking truth and meaning, and in the failure of the Fourth Estate to assist with this cause, we must do it on our own.

Seventy years following the publication of Orwell’s essay, we are being presented with an example of each of the kinds of political speakers he mentions. The one that adheres to party lines, orthodoxy, and an imitative style; who hides behind words in order to mask meaning. And the other who seems a rebel, but says what people feel is true; a vivid speaker and public figure who uses words to reveal meaning and values truth over political expediency and the language that goes with it.

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