The Emptiness of American Rhetoric

Carol Anderson's editorial in today's Washington Post contextualizes Michael Brown's death (and the upsetting reality of the failed indictment of his shooter) as part of America's institutionalized white rage. One of the staggering paragraphs in her piece reminds us of Lee Atwater's 1981 comments on the codified language of racism:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N——-, n——-, n——-.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n——-’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like ‘forced busing,’ ‘states’ rights’ and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it.”

The landscape of American rhetoric is rife with this kind of coded speech. Words and phrases are bled of their original meaning and then used to paint a veneer that covers rage/anger/fear. As people who work with words, we have to ask not only what words may mean, but what they do. Do they obscure? Do they inhibit? Do discursive press conferences mask stark truths? What does the accumulation of this kind of masking language does to our ears and minds? And if you live in a house that has Fox News or MSNBC on every day, how do the repeated refrains of the hosts affect your thoughts?

It's my belief that the current state of language in the United States skirts dangerously close to the condition Toni Morrison warned of in her 1993 Nobel speech:

The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, midwifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek - it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language — all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.

If we want to prevent the systematic looting of language in America, we must be better at celebrating and promoting individuals and outlets that continue to explore the nuanced nature of words and ideas: long-form neutral reporting, books/tv/film/plays that refuse to indulge in easy tropes, and politicians brave enough to say "I don't know." If we don't, we will continue to live in a country where empty words fill the air while an insidious rage bubbles beneath.