Socialist, Nazi, Muslim, terrorist, extremist, baby killer, tyrant, dictator, un-American... and that's just the beginning of a long list of hate-filled words used in political and public conversation when talking about the ""opponent."" There is a reason kids are taught not to use ""bad words."" It is because language does matter and word choice is important. In an era where the F-word has virtually lost all meaning to such an extent that it has become a member of our conversational lexicon, we need to take a step back and realize that the words we use are powerful, charged with meaning, and as such we need to think carefully about how we use them.
Words are dangerous. Plato said that rhetoric is the ""art of enchanting the soul."" John Locke (not the guy from ""Lost"") called rhetoric ""that powerful instrument of error and deceit."" Both Plato and Locke were acutely aware of the influence and authority of words and language on individual and cultural beliefs and behavior. Words don't just hurt feelings, they incite hatred and violence, they reaffirm stereotypes and they propagate falsehoods.
We interact with one another and the world via words. As a result, the threat of misinformation, or what Locke referred to as ""error,"" looms over word choice and rhetoric. There is a reason 40 percent of Americans believe president Obama to be a socialist, 32 percent believe Obama is a Muslim and 29 percent believe the president of the United States of America wants to ""turn over the sovereignty of the United States to a one-world government"" (according to a survey of 2,320 adults between March 1 and 8 of this year by Harris Polls). The language we use in our national political dialog propagates incendiary ideas and beliefs like these.
The American two party political system is built on (and relies on) difference and division. There is no such thing as bi-partisanship. Both Republicans and Democrats push their own agenda by criticizing that of the other and demonizing their opponent. The result of this ineffective rhetoric is nothing; by nothing I mean that nothing gets accomplished in Washington, D.C. when the two parties spend their time and effort attacking each other rather than working together. Not only are their efforts misguided, but the divisive and hurtful rhetoric employed by both parties to vilify the ""enemy"" makes cooperation impossible. After all, how can one work with the enemy?
Not only does divisive rhetoric inhibit collaboration, but it also fuels hatred and violence. Labeling someone as a terrorist or Nazi incites fear that leads to violence. Last week marked the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, an act of domestic terrorism against the tyranny of the U.S. government and what Timothy McVeigh saw as the feds' overreaching military and domestic power. Fifteen years later, anti-government rhetoric is increasing and protestors with guns are rallying in Washington.
The discontent and anger fueled by dangerous rhetoric seems poised for violence. Are we headed toward another domestic act of terrorism? Is that what it will take for us to see that hate filled language is not constructive but is extremely dangerous?
Rhetoric is a powerful and dangerous tool and it has become powerful and dangerous when used politically. Political parties now rally around ""talking points."" This fall we are likely to see a split of the conservative vote measurably and visibly in differences of rhetoric. The Meghan McCains of the country don't believe Obama is a socialist and they never accuse the president of being ""un-American."" The Sarah Palins of the country can't quit talking about the socialist takeover that threatens ""real"" patriotic Americans. Political campaigns will be won and lost on the rhetorical battlefield, but no one stands to win when words are used to divide and vilify rather than find common ground.
In his 2004 book ""The Art of Rhetorical Criticism,"" Virginia Tech professor Jim Kuypers defines rhetoric as ""the strategic use of communication, oral or written, to achieve specifiable goals."" As a society, we must make sure these ""specifiable goals"" are constructive, that they work toward and focus on understanding and that they do not seek to alienate or demonize anyone or any group with a differing opinion. Name-calling was not OK in elementary school and it has no place in American politics.
Kathy Dittrich is a senior majoring in English and French. Please send all feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.