The Foul Language of Politics

We have been asked by some of our readers, as an addendum to a previous post on anger and politics, to write something about the tragic shooting in Arizona last week.  While it feels premature to comment on the motivations of the shooter, it seems reasonable to write more about the anger and aggression so prevalent in American politics. 

Much has already been made of the vitriolic language used by some candidates during this last election.  While this election cycle did seem more aggressive than most, there may be a deeper problem when it comes to how we talk about politics in America.  That is, our use of war as a metaphor for elections. 

Think for a moment about any one of the last few presidential elections.  In each case, the battle for the White House began with someone launching their campaign, traveling to battleground states to make their case and taking shots at their opponent.  In return, their opponent fired back, blasting them for their positions.  Back in the war rooms, their strategists plan to launch their next attack ad, targeting their opponent’s stances.  This continues… the candidates are bashed, hit, or dealt a blow, districts are targeted, candidates take aim, they fight for endorsements, they gain and lose ground, they go on the offensive, they defend themselves from attacks until, eventually, the showdown comes to an end and one is defeated

In fact, though most do not tend to think of it this way, even the word “campaign” has a military meaning: “A series of military operations undertaken to achieve a large-scale objective during a war” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2000).  In other words, the war metaphor is so deeply engrained in how we think of politics that even the word most often used to describe the process is combat term.  Such language is not meaningless.  How we talk about something is a reflection of how we think of it.    

There are other metaphors sometimes used to describe elections; the race metaphor or the debate metaphor.  Might we be better off if we thought of elections less as aggressive conflict and more as “an extended competition in which participants struggle to be the winner” or “a discussion involving opposing points”? To approach things this way means that candidates take the lead instead of gaining ground, they score points instead of taking shots or dealing blows, and they push to the finish line instead of going on the offensive. While not perfect, these may reflect healthier perspectives.

By Ryan C. Martin
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2 comments

  1. Fantastic, Ryan. Yes, our language matters, and I especially like how you point out that there are alternatives. Well done! And thank you.

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