Linguistics can help conservatives and liberals agree on objective reality again

Let’s just shake on it, eh?
Let’s just shake on it, eh?
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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In highly polarized moments, we tend to recycle the same words over and over again rather than have original thoughts. Phrases like “Make America Great Again” and terms like “alt-right” are representative of hand-me-down political terminology that serves no discursive purpose. But it’s not that we lack ideas to voice: It’s that we’ve gotten lazy about voicing them.

The problem with fixed speech patterns is that they don’t scrutinize the issue at the heart of their subject. Some of the most common terms of the day such as “Muslim ban” and “the Russians” obscure, rather than illuminate, the issues they claim to represent.

That’s because the constraints of virality demand we speak without saying much. We chant slogans and deploy buzzwords. We mindlessly share withering memes and oddball GIFs. We like articles without actually reading them and settle debates with retweets. In short, we have become overreliant on second-hand discourse.

Now, more than ever, we need to pay special attention to the words we are using. Sloppy terminology is dangerous for two reasons. First, it can be turned back against us. A prime example of this is the term “fake news,” which originally conjured the ignorance of Republicans who fell for falsified articles, before being reclaimed by Trump himself to put down the left-leaning real news. And second, the endless repetition of stale political vocabulary dilutes our focus on real issues.

For instance, consider the recent dispute over the word “ban.” In January, Trump’s executive order on visas and refugees closed US borders to citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries, suspended the Refugee Admissions Program, and blocked Syrian refugees from entering the country. Despite these urgent real-world consequences, a fair chunk of the controversy centered on semiotics.

Trump himself used the word “ban” on the campaign trail, but the protest hashtag #MuslimBan emerged later. However, as a ban on a certain religious group would be unconstitutional, White House press secretary Sean Spicer scrambled to insist that “ban” was a misleading term. Others on the right joined him, defending the executive order with semantics: “A ban on Muslims would be a law that prevents Muslims from entering the United States based solely on the fact that they are Muslim. No such law exists.”

While politicians were dueling about syntax, the courts were conducting a more worthwhile analysis. When the Ninth Circuit considered the executive order, the judges didn’t quibble about usage. Rather, the court asked the administration to present legal arguments and concrete evidence justifying the executive order—“ban” or not. When the administration came up empty-handed, it wasn’t because of shrewd word choice. Rather, the court cited likely violations of multiple federal laws and noted the widespread negative effect on thousands of innocent people. The Ninth Circuit’s analysis was sober, exacting, and did not parrot the same platitudes expressed by politicians and the media. The public debate should have looked the same.

To be sure, there are limits to this critique. Social practicalities require that complicated ideas be simplified. It’s the paradox of democratic politics: the more complex the society, the more complex its problems, and the harder it is to widely communicate solutions to those problems. In many ways, the art of politics lies in precisely the ability to strike that impossible balance between elite and accessible.

This paradox is hard to overcome, but it is a reminder to resist falling back on repetitious, imprecise language. Looking at the history of a field related to linguistics called semiotics—the study of signs and meaning—can be enormously helpful in training us to speak our own minds.

A quick guide to semiotics

Russian linguist Roman Jakobson identified six functions of language. The interplay of these functions forms the structure of human communication. For our purposes, let’s consider two of Jakobson’s language functions: the referential function and the metalingual function.

In its most basic sense, a word refers to a thing—say, a piece of fruit—with a linguistic representative, like “apple.” When you call the apple an apple, this is using a referential function, which is language’s primary function. The referential function of language is used to communicate a concrete, factual message and has the most direct relationship to reality.

If the referential function is about things, the metalingual function is about signs; it’s about the symbols we use to represent things, rather than the things themselves. A metalingual expression doesn’t refer directly to the apple in your hand. Rather, it calls up the hidden characteristics of the word “apple,” such as its metaphoric usage, cultural connotations, and etymology. For example, you might refer to an apple as symbolizing temptation (in reference to the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve) or a teacher (in reference to the cultural connection between teachers and apples).

With Jakobson’s distinction in mind, we can see what often happens in public debate: We start out with the referential function, describing reality accurately in plain terms, and then unwittingly slip into the metalingual function, referring to abstract ideas about reality instead of reality itself. This becomes particularly concerning when you consider that not all of us see the same objective reality. Our backgrounds and worldviews color how we take in and analyze information. As a result, when two people from opposing political views use metalingual language to communicate instead of the more objective referential language, they often think they’re describing the same reality, when they’re actually seeing two distinct pictures.

For example, take a look at the way the word “Russia” is thrown around. In its referential function, “Russia” straightforwardly refers to a geographic and political entity with a tangible, objectively measurable foreign policy. But in its metalingual function, the word “Russia” is far trickier. In the metalingual sense, the specter of “Russia” evokes a century of intense symbolic baggage for many: latent Cold War aggressions, the horrors of Soviet domination, and ideological conflict between capitalism and socialism. However, for others who view the referential entity “Russia” with more positivity, the same term can connote power, strength, and resilience. So when these two opposing sides both use “Russia” metalingually, they’re not having the same conversation.

The Trump administration is harboring a lot of controversy involving Russia. These issues should be ruthlessly investigated, but we need to talk about “Russia” in the concrete, referential sense, and not “Russia” in the ideological, metalingual sense. We should refer to concrete facts about Russian foreign policy and acknowledge the complex relationship between the two countries.

We need to make our way back to referential language. When we talk politics, we should avoid the endless repetition of buzzwords, the parroting of stale slogans, and the trading of labels. Instead of casually referring to the “alt-right,” we should dismantle the notion of white supremacy. Instead of saying “Muslim ban,” we should point out that the executive order violates the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. Instead of conjuring Russia as an ideological enemy, we should demand the hard facts surrounding Michel Flynn’s resignation.

In other words, we should speak to each other with precision and creativity, rediscovering a discursive politics and a unique voice capable of stirring social progress. Maybe then we’ll really get somewhere.