• We the People . . . Are Struggling with Communication

    Over the past fifteen years of teaching American Government to college students, I’ve noticed a steady decline in our ability to communicate clearly about our political ideals. Here's what I mean.  
     
    This is a set of words. I wrote them. You’re reading them. And so I’m assuming that I’m communicating with you in a meaningful way. But what if I’m not? What if you’re interpreting the meaning of my words in whatever way you want? I imagine that the result would be like hearing a completely foreign language, one in which we have no common reference point for the meaning of the sounds being uttered. If this is the case, are we communicating?
     
    I know the notion that words must have a common meaning or reference point between people in order to exchange ideas is an elementary one. And I don’t mean to insult your intelligence by pointing this out. I also accept that languages change, that the meaning of words can be somewhat fluid, that one word can have multiple meanings depending on context, that some language is private, that language is to some degree relative, etc. Language evolves, is difficult, and imprecise. This much I understand.
     
    But what I’m questioning is what happens if we keep talking to each other, but we’ve privatized the meaning of some of the most important words we’re using, especially some of the same words we’re using. And then, we assume that we know each other’s meaning because we’re using the same words. For instance, what if your meaning of “justice” and my meaning of “justice” are substantially different even when used in the exact same sentence, but we keep talking about justice assuming we have a similar or the same meaning?
     
    I don’t think that all words have been privatized, but maybe we’ve removed enough important words from the public domain so that we’ve unintentionally wrecked our ability to communicate clearly, and thereby relate well, with each other on what many people consider fundamental ideals, like political ideals.
     
    American politics, especially at the national level, is a generally agreed upon mess. But I think one important underlying reason that it’s so dysfunctional at the national level is our miscommunication at the local level, the very local level, in the way we talk about politics with our neighbors and children and spouses. We talk about political ideals without defining what we mean and assume that everyone hearing us shares our meaning.
     
    Think of some of the most common words we hear in stump speeches or in public policy debates. Now ask yourself what they mean. What is justice? What is liberty? What is terrorism? What is faith? What is equality? What is security? What is privacy? What is patriotism? Even, what is an American?
     
    What is the essential concept or ideas that these words represent? If the way that you answer these questions begins with the phrase, “To me . . .,” or “In my opinion . . .,” you might be regularly miscommunicating by assuming that others automatically understand and agree with your meaning. And so the conversation you have with your neighbor about our political response to mass shootings, just to pick one of any number of examples, isn’t really a conversation.
     
    If we don’t agree on the meaning of our fundamental political ideals, and if the words that represent our ideals have different meanings for different people but we keep talking as if they don’t, then we’ll have a heightened discord in politics today at all levels. Add to this miscommunication by amateur politicians (my name for all of us who don’t get paid for political office) the fact that professional politicians regularly, purposefully miscommunicate. They do this for a variety of reasons: to persuade, to dupe, to motivate, to excite, and so on. What we get is a distasteful recipe for toxic American political pie.
     
    We regularly spread our confusion about politics through miscommunication due to assumptions, a confusion which over time intensifies to frustration, and our frustration erupts in anger, which subtly morphs into fear, which degenerates in some instances to hate.
     
    An important part of the solution then to our political discord today is to ask ourselves what we mean by the politically charged words we use, ask ourselves if our meaning is the accepted meaning, and help others understand our meaning through humble conversation. If we disagree about the meaning of the ideals, at least then we’ll know and can reasonably discuss why we disagree. Or, we can just respond to any political ideals in the brilliant voice of Groucho Marx:
    I don't know what they have to say
    It makes no difference anyway
    Whatever it is, I'm against it!
    No matter what it is
    Or who commenced it
    I'm against it!
     
    Your proposition may be good
    But let's have one thing understood
    Whatever it is, I'm against it!
    And even when you've changed it
    Or condensed it I'm against it!
     
    I'm opposed to it
    On general principles I'm opposed to it!
    (He's opposed to it)
    (In fact, he says he's opposed to it!)
     
    For months before my son was born
    I used to yell from night to morn
    "Whatever it is, I'm against it!"
    And I've kept yelling
    Since I first commenced it
    "I'm against it!"
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