Semantics and Politics

One of the most fascinating aspects of the race between Barack and Hillary is the role that words are playing. Both candidates are highly educated and well-spoken. They give the impression of knowing exactly what they’re saying and the effect their words are having. That isn’t always true with politicians, even the most polished ones. But I can just see Barack weighing all his words on a scale and Hillary practicing hers in front of a mirror. Some use the word “calculating” to describe Hillary, but the word is just as apt when applied to Barack. They are masters of the use of semantics.

Larry King had several people on his show the other night to gauge their reaction to Barack’s denouncement of his ex-pastor. He showed a clip of a portion of Barack’s speech. I saw a man who was being so careful to not step in the shit he could barely talk. But others had a whole other range of reactions: He was graciously trying hard to control his anger, he was brave, he was eloquent. Of course the ones who had such laudatory words to say about Barack were supporters of his. The man who supported Hillary was much more temperate in his assessment of Obama’s performance. (Notice the tone when I use the word “performance.”) Words were being batted around like shuttlecocks. For me, half the fun of political campaigns is dissecting the way words are used in every ad, commercial, debate, news story, op-ed column and sound bite. It isn’t hard to tell who supports whom by the words that they use.

I’m especially sensitive about this on Hillary’s behalf. She tends to draw out the most unflattering adjectives because of the fact that she’s a woman bucking the male system. (Did I mention that I’m a feminist?) For example, there’s a world of difference between calling her a fighter and calling her pugnacious. I’m sure that Barack draws his own share of unflattering (insulting?) adjectives but the media seem careful to not allow them to stink up the public arena. The kid gloves are off when it comes to Hillary. That may be my perception, but that’s what I find so fascinating: how we use language to serve our purposes and support our positions.

I tend to try to write “equal time” essays where I’m really careful to give each point of view its due. But I think it’s a lot more fun to be opinionated. It needs to be done in a classy way, though. And that’s where a sophisticated use of language comes in. Throwing words around can be done by anyone. It takes a student of words to do it with style.