How do you fix a problem rooted in rhetoric?

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When your car breaks down, what do you do? Me, personally, I call my dad who asks me what on earth I would like him to do (he lives three hundred miles away) and then I call AAA and they send a tow truck. Easy. Done.

But not all problems have such a simple fix. In his book Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics? President and CEO of The New York Times Company Mark Thompson lays out the problems with our political rhetoric today. Drawing on basic rhetoric theory and applying it to case studies throughout contemporary American and world politics, Thompson presents the conundrums and posits some solutions about the failures of political language.

Thompson structures his book in a way that is familiar to any student: clear-cut sections with subdivisions and a clear statement of his thesis at the end of each chapter. The structure is easy to follow, therefore leaving more time for the reader to unpack the themes Thompson discusses, rather than trying to figure out his writing style.

The author acknowledges the polarizing nature of his topic and does his best to distance himself from his biases. That being said, Thompson bluntly states that “[t]he crisis in our politics is a crisis of political language.” So, not entirely unbiased, but then again when you pick up a book with a title such as this, you probably knew that already.

But how do you fix a problem as endemic and rampant as subpar language usage? Let’s remember, repairing political language is not as easy as changing the alternator on my Honda; there is no one correct way to go about fixing how people use words.

First, Thompson reminds us that the art of rhetoric goes back to ancient Greece, to Sophists such as Aristotle, Thucydides, and Cato the Younger. Once he presents the foundation, the author applies that rhetorical theory to political leaders nearly every contemporary person would know: Adolf Hitler, Donald Trump, and Margaret Thatcher to name a few. There’s even a Hamilton reference buried in the tome.

Particularly, Thompson notes the immense pull that George Orwell still has on today’s politicians and their choice of rhetoric style. Orwell’s writings have become so prolific in today’s collective memory that they are often hard to escape. The author agrees with Orwell in the sense that they both acknowledge the power language has to change and shape society, but Thompson does not take the utterly dreary tone in which Orwell perpetually finds himself. However, Thompson does note the shortcomings of over edited and processed words.

Language is very potent and must be treated as such. There are even times when language can get in the way of itself. Thompson notes that “[p]olitical correctness is inspired by the rationalist conviction that if you stop people saying prejudiced or hurtful things, over time they will stop thinking and acting prejudicially too [which is] an unproved and psychologically implausible conjecture…”

Along this vain, the author implores his reader to remember that even though he is heavily critiquing mostly Western cases of rhetoric, we as citizens of the Western world have to remind ourselves to be thankful that we have the political latitude to make such mistakes. Freedom of the press and speech are not innate human rights that everyone across the world shares. Everything Thompson writes should be taken with this understanding in mind: we have already fought for the right to express ourselves freely, now we are concentrating on refining the skill that comes with that right.

The dictionary has neither a disclaimer on the front, nor a warning label hidden behind the inside flap, but maybe it should? As for me, I don’t know the answer. But I whole-heartedly agree with Thompson when he reminds us that words have a weight we need to respect.

 

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