Success for any community often depends on the difference between vocabulary and language. Articulating the current challenges faced by all regions across the country means communicating in ways that energize citizens to get involved. That’s what politics is supposed to be doing, but instead it seeks to provoke us through vocabulary – the careful selection of words and concepts that might prove useful to a particular agenda but which in the end cheapens the very language we need to overcome our problems. George Orwell took this a bit further when he wrote, “Political chaos is connected with the decay of language … one can probably bring about some kind of improvement by starting at the verbal end.” Indeed.
A real threat in our communities comes from the kind of jingoism that both our representatives and we throw about each day. Democracy was empowered when its mode of language was inclusive by nature as opposed to divisive in intent. Consensus, common good, cooperation, empowerment, equality, integrity, justice, responsibility, participation, community – these were the terms our parents used to build our country. Such words are still used but cheapened by the kind of vocabulary that mentions them while at the same time stripping them of their substance.
The history of democracy has been accompanied by the building of a language that empowered citizens to take control of their own communities and not to discharge that obligation to others. Now we are left with buzzwords that speak more of a democratic past than present reality.
We all know things aren’t right. While governments appear frozen in their partisan place, citizens continue in a place of either ambivalence or perpetual anger. And no matter how much rhetoric is used to lift our democratic spirits, we sense it is either empty or designed to gain our political loyalty as opposed to our participation.
It’s been some time since we conversed with one another in a language broader than our present circumstances. But what would happen if we tossed out our present vernacular and permitted ourselves to be possessed by a language that speaks to the better angels of our nature. I believe the effects could be revolutionary.
Think of what happened to the people of colonial America when Thomas Paine published his Common Sense. Its effect was so powerful even George Washington was drawn to its logic and eventually the leadership of the independence movement. What Paine brought to the citizen equation was not new understanding but a clarion call to what people already knew yet seemed to have misplaced. They knew all the buzzwords but he brought them the language of their shared knowledge, stripped of its manipulative vocabulary. By writing in such a moving style, Paine put the people in touch with their own fundamental understanding that lay beneath the overly used political code words of the day. What he gave them was a language – their own aspirational language – and it was sufficient to light the fire. He thrust their own intrinsic knowledge back at them, minus the limiting vocabulary that had stunted their collective action. He believed his readers possessed the knowledge required to claim their own fate – a language they had submerged within the complex equations of politics and power.
Think of how we have permitted modern political vocabulary to change the game and force our inaction. We don’t talk about justice anymore but law and courts. A clean environment has been trumped by economic necessities. Education has gone from being about life and participation in community to training for employment. Healthcare policy is now all about personal sickness instead of collective and preventive planning. Politics today is all about parties not democracy. Voting is more often about vengeance than vitality. Perhaps saddest of all, citizenship is more about consumerism than contribution.
I think it’s time we allowed our deeper language and aspirations to captivate us once more; we’ve been in bondage too long. We need to take what we already believe at its best and join forces to enact those values. Maybe it’s time we rebelled, motivated by that deeper language of inclusion. Martin Luther King Jr. provoked the political leaders of his day by proclaiming, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” The Occupy movement correctly identifies the “unheard” as the homeless, the poor, the environment, the marginalized, and so on. But is it not true that all of us as citizens are unheard? Silenced by our own ambivalence or the sheer manipulative nature of politics, the “herding” nature of capitalism or the pre-packaged symbolism of much of the modern media, it’s perhaps time we started our own riot. Maybe it’s time to strike out, not with signs, guns, voting ballots or anger, even tents, but with language – the kind of words of promise that remind us what we were once capable of before we got lost in the weeds of political vocabulary and individualistic pursuits. We’ve been silent too long as citizens. It’s time to elevate our language and our conduct. Now that’s a riot I’d love to be part of.