03 October 2010

Being Chary About Words

As a logophiliac, I was just contemplating how words color our thoughts. When I was an undergraduate a quarter of a century ago, progressives tried to clean up our thoughts. Instead of referring to the grizzled, intoxicated vangrants who hung around the edge of campus as “bums”, our sincere social justice advocates instructed us to call them “street people”. I trust that now they would refer to the same class as the “underprivileged”. Each expression can emphasize different facets from the same subject. The term bum is pejorative but descriptive, street person sounds clinically neutral (yet is meaningless) and underprivileged exposes noblesse oblige elitist prejudices.

As Gloria Allred was engaging in her media blitz against Republican California Gubernatorial candidate Meg Witman’s firing of domestic help, she tried to avoid questions about whether her client was an illegal alien due to the pejorative term. Allred joked that they were not talking about E.T. but an “undocumented worker”. Choice of words can say so much. Of course, the expression “undocumented worker” absolves the individual from circumventing the established immigration process and pushes the conversation towards regularizing these workers or even giving amnesty.

Sometimes, how a speaker frames a subject through word choice speaks volumes. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) was able to dominate the his campaign against Martha Coakley (D-MA) when debate moderator David Gergen called the special election as a contest for “Teddy Kennedy’s seat”. Brown rightly refuted this characterization as the Kennedy seat or the Democrats seat but instead was the peoples’ seat. Brown’s adroit comeback captured lightning in the bottle and may have inspired many Massachusetts independents to vote for a candidate that personified populism rather than the Democratic party machine.

History repeated itself during a nationally televised Kentucky Senatorial debate between Democrat Jack Conway and libertarian inspired Republican Rand Paul. Conway tried to project humility when saying that he was running for the seat that Wendell Ford held for 24 years. This set up Paul to incredulously opine that: “I didn’t know that it was Wendell Ford’s seat. I thought that it was the people of Kentucky’s seat.” Conways throwaway line used language that demonstrated arrogance by arrogating the seat to Democrat predecessor rather than representing the Commonwealth of Kentucky. To compound Conway’s troubles, the seat was actually being vacated by two term Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY). Senator Ford had not held that post since 1998.

Granted, Rand Paul has a comfortable 7 point lead over Conway. But the national press tried to "Bork" Rand Paul in May by capitalizing on liberatian inspired bull sessions. Now Paul can bolster his populist credentials. It also highlights the meme of Democrats’ arrogant entitlement to power. While I suspect that Conway was making a strained analogy to a Democrat predecessor, in the heated homestretch of the mid term elections, Conway will be portrayed say out of touch.

So much meaning attached to a casual phrase. Perhaps Jack Conway can console himself by saying that Fox News Sunday is in last place amongst talking head shows and that nobody will pay attention to his words at this point in the campaign. Sure, whatever you say.

No comments: