Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Thinking through the words we use in our political monologs

Posted in social networking and business by Timothy Platt on June 6, 2016

I initially wrote the text that follows as a background reading for participants in a group discussion, that was held under the aegis of a socially active community organization that I have become involved with. And I decided, even as I was writing it that I would include a version of this here in my blog too, and in its Social Networking and Business 2 directory page. This short note does, after all, address critically important communications challenges that we face societally – and not just in the United States and even if I explicitly focus on American political discourse here. And this does play out online and through interactive social media as much as it does through television and other central broadcast model communications channels.

And with that noted, I offer:
… some rough notes and first draft thoughts towards forming more meaningful political dialogs.

My goal here is to provoke questions, and even dialog – not to suggest definitive answers. In a democracy, it is the questions and the questioning, and the search for meaning that counts. And that is particularly true when those questions can be arrived at through discussion and debate and as a collaborative search for truth.

• My focus here is on a crucially important set of words that we use, and that others around us use, but with everyone seeming to talk past each other where that really counts.

H.L. Menken is known for many things, among which I would prominently include one of his more cogent observations, that: “Americans and British are two peoples divided by a common language.” And Oscar Wilde, quite similarly observed that “We really have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” I make note here of both, as Menken was American and Wilde was British. So they might not have used the same words in precisely the same way. But they were able to come to agreement that they could and did miscommunicate when addressing audiences across the Atlantic – and if not all of the time, at least with notable frequency. And they both knew that to be less than entirely for the good.

This predicament has if anything, become a more pressing challenge within the United States, and as a trend that traces back at least as far as the immediate aftermath of Richard Nixon’s being forced out of office in 1974 (see Watergate scandal.) Quite simply, the leadership of the Republican Party of that time, realized that the only way they could stage a return to national power and leadership, was to take control of the political conversation. And the most effective way for them to achieve that was to in effect redefine what certain key politically charged words mean, in the ongoing political debate. This is when the word “liberal” was first reframed as a pejorative when applied to the political left and to Democrats, by those of the political right and Republicans, and by their pundits and editorialists.

That was the first move down what actually has proven itself to be a slippery slope. And as those on the right and news and opinion makers who sided with them, began to change the meaning of terms like “liberal” that Democrats had always used as a positive in identifying their own more constructive goals and approaches, the inevitable happened. Words like “conservative” began to take on new and toxically different meanings too. And those on the left and on the right politically, still sought to use “their own” words and labels in what they thought of as their traditional ways and according to their traditional meanings. But their political opponents took to systematically, and I add automatically using those same sounding words in radically divergent ways. And we have reached a point where very few of the politically meaningful words that any of us use, hold common meaning or anything like it across the chasm-like political divide that separates us.

And our lack of ability to talk with each other: our growing inability to do better than to talk past each other and at closest approach at each other, was made inevitable by our growing language differences. And that has made the depth and width of the chasm that divides us, immense. And this leads me to my questions, which I would hope others would challenge and add to and change – as part of a talking-with and a true dialog.

• What do words like liberal and progressive mean when used by a Democrat and by a Republican?
• What do words like conservative and ultra-conservative mean when used by Republicans and Democrats?
• How much of the gap between those perspectives, is captured by the simple observation that partisans on both sides use their own terms to express their hope and the terms of their opponents to express their fears?
• Where do their actual underlying hopes and fears mesh in underlying if unexpressed agreement, and where are they at odds? This is a question of where a common ground might be found to at least attempt to close some of this communications gap.
• And most importantly, what are your questions here? This is the one question of this entire set of them that is most important for people of good will in general to ask, and of themselves and of others – and regardless of their starting points politically.

I would suggest starting with some basic What questions, and then add in How questions, such as questions about the role of the internet and of online social media in all of this. And another How area of questioning and discussion is in how the lines have been blurred between news reporting on the one hand, and editorializing and opinion on the other. And as a third possibility, the partisan polarization of news channels enters in here too, where way too many of us have come to live in echo chambers where we are only exposed to what is essentially our own preconceived opinion, limiting our opportunity to even get to hear anything from across the divide. And once again, what would you ask to further this conversation? What would your insights and opinions add to the list of issues that need shared discussion here?

Ultimately, democracy can only work as a shared experience, and as one that includes and allows for the inclusion of those who disagree too. Democracy can only work where genuine dialog can take place and with a benefit of doubt offered that presumes at least good will and good intent on all sides, and perhaps particularly at moments of deepest disagreement. This is not easy, but ultimately real conversation: real dialog never is easy and certainly on the more impactful and important issues that we collectively face.

I initially began writing this as a thought piece for starting a discussion in a group that I have become involved with. The one opinion that all of us share in that group, is a desire to better know and understand the issues and perspectives that we all face in this complex and change-driven period. When I offered my first initial draft of this note, as a possible starting point for discussion, one of the responses that I received was a request for dictionary definitions. I finish it by suggesting that it is up to us and to others of good will, and of all political persuasions, to arrive at new more widely understood and agreed to definitions for our key political words of identity and inclusion: new shared definitions that we can turn to as a means of speaking with each other again.

That, with a few more hyperlinks added, is the text of the document that I prepared for a May 23, 2016 event (which I reorganize here with contextual starting and concluding text for inclusion in this blog, on April 23, 2016.) I am already thinking in terms of adding at least one follow-up posting and of possibly making this the start of a short posting series. I will decide that during and after the May 23 event itself, and with any next installment set to go live prior to the Democratic and Republican Party National Conventions where they will formally select their presidential candidates for the upcoming November, 2016 US elections.

Meanwhile, you can find this posting at Social Networking and Business 2, and see that directory’s Page 1.

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