To think about the news (6): Ask, why use these words?

Stories come to us as a cascade of words. The words are, usually, intentionally selected to make the story work, that is, to convey the perspective of the storyteller. A word can convey opinion, emotion, or feelings that listeners may resonate with or not. This week was full of stories about violence, particularly violence at religious sites, in the U.S. and Sri Lanka. The most frequent words said about these stories were: “there are no words to describe.” Then people went on trying to find the words to convey sadness, sympathy, anger, horror, hope, or to ask, why. The words we speak also impart our values and the choice of words often suggests the beliefs that are the source of our expressions. The Mueller Report continues to provide a window into how stories convey the storyteller’s point of view. The words of a story signal the intention of the storyteller and can alert us to listen carefully.

Mid April, the word that caught the most attention of Washington watchers was “spying” used by Attorney General Barr in testifying to the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on April 9, 2019. Spying is usually perceived as a nefarious, or hostile act, even though it just means to secretly observe. It is, however, not the way that authorized surveillance of a person or organization by a law enforcement agency is usually described, especially when that person or organization might be interacting with a foreign nation. Barr had previously called the investigation “fatally misconceived” in his letter to Rod Rosenstein in June 2018. After releasing his summary of the report, March 24, he said a team was investigating whether the FBI surveillance had been properly authorized and carried out. In this testimony to the committee, however, he left no confusion about his point of view. Two days later at a rally the President took it up a notch and used the word ‘coup’ to describe the investigation. A coup, according to Merriam Webster, “is a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics, especially: the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group.” To say this statement was a bit over the top would not be an exaggeration. Nothing was violent about the authorized FBI investigation; no overthrow of the government planned.

These vignettes are good examples of how choice of words betrays a point of view and the underlying beliefs (or strategy) of the individual. More importantly, they show how language can be used to elevate often spurious ideas and cut off the possibility of criticism that might be reasonable. This is the language of going to the ‘corners.’ As I discussed in the previous “To think about the news” posts Barr had already displayed his point of view. His comments to the congressional committee further illustrate the purposeful use of language to shape the narrative and create a counter narrative to the actual report. In addition to the specific issues addressed by the Special Counsel’s investigation about the security of our elections from foreign interference, there are now additional questions about the integrity of the Department of Justice, the independence of the Attorney General, and the oversight responsibility of Congress.

Words have always mattered, but perhaps not as much as they do today when there seems to be even more nefarious attempts to manipulate the civic conversation and confuse, if not just outright lie about, the important issues that challenge our democracy. While these examples drawn from our current controversial political dialogue highlight the need to understand how we can be manipulated by words, we need to pay attention to words even in more familiar and ordinary contexts. For example, the healthcare debate is a constant reflection of the uses of language to shape perspective and not only selective word choice, but also the fact that people have different meanings for words depending on their point of view. Two years ago when Paul Ryan, then Speaker of the House of Representatives, was interviewed by John Dickerson, (, I was struck by his meaning of the word freedom. He argued that the “…beautiful thing about this plan that we’re proposing, it is more freedom, it is more choices, it is more markets, it’s lower prices, which gets us better access.” Dickerson asked about those unable to buy the proposed healthcare and noted that they would not have more freedom. Ryan’s response was clear; by freedom he meant a person’s right to choose and not whether they could afford to do so, or the freedom to have healthcare.

The question is”, said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1861). What does freedom mean? What in fact do many of the words in the Preamble to the Constitution mean today? Who are “we the people,” when the words used by those at the highest level of government seek to divide us? If words mean different things to different people, how do we talk to each other across the entrenched boundaries of the political divide? Can we learn to scrutinize the news through the questions I’ve asked in these last few weeks: is it news?, what is the point of view?, who benefits and who doesn’t?, who is trying to get my attention and why?, what is the purpose of the story?, and why use these words? If we can, we have a fighting chance to come closer to some of the truths that we need to survive. Asking such questions are skills we have by virtue of our evolution over eons. We could not have survived without the wit to look around, assess the situation, and determine what is a threat and what is an opportunity. Furthermore, we could not have survived without the emotional intelligence to take care of each other in times of need. We are in such a time because powerful forces in government and the private sector are spinning the facts and playing on our emotions by misusing or changing the meaning of words. Sometimes I find I have no words to describe the distorted and degraded dialogue that purports to be about our national and international crises, questions of survival for people and planet. What I do know is that words matter!

JoAnn McAllister

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