Good Words on Words

March 13, 2012

The Washington Post today had a couple of great columns about the importance and power of rhetoric. Both do a good job of countering poor political claims and will hopefully help people think more about the importance of language. Michael Gerson, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, penned a piece criticizing Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum for attacking President Barack Obama's use of teleprompters. Here are a few highlights:

On this issue, Santorum cannot be accused of hypocrisy. His Super Tuesday victory speech, delivered in Steubenville, Ohio, did not make use of a teleprompter - or any other form of rhetorical discipline. It was a 20-minute ramble of lame jokes, patriotic platitudes and half-developed campaign themes. ... He vaguely honored Ronald Reagan for saying inspiring words, without bothering to contribute any of his own. ... The craft of rhetoric involves the humility of repeated revision. ... But a prospective president should care about rhetoric for deeper reasons: Because language and leadership are inseparable. Because history is not shaped or moved by mediocre words.
Santorum is not alone among Republicans attacking Obama for using a teleprompter, so hopefully Gerson will be able to talk some sense into his fellow Republicans (some of whom ironically even attack Obama for using a teleprompter while themselves using a teleprompter!). The art of speechwriting should be respected because words can powerfully change the world.

The other good column on rhetoric today was by David Lane, who took politicians and activists to task for overusing the "war" metaphor. Here are a couple of highlights:
There are, of course, plenty of real wars raging around the world; in some of them, Americans are dying. But the folks back home, busy with their election-year quarrels, have little interest in discussing such matters. No, what the metaphor-mongers are referring to is political disagreement among citizens of the same democracy. And the last time I checked, most of those disagreements were being expressed through peaceful means - and neither side in any of these debates had a monopoly on the truth. ... For both parties, the goal is to encourage Americans to think of one another as enemies and, eventually, to hate and fear one another. ... When you think of someone as an enemy, it's harder to contemplate trusting, respecting or cooperating with him or her. Indeed, those behaviors start to look like treason, instead of what they really are: the minimum requirements of democratic life.
Amen! He is right that our use of the "war" metaphor is hurting our civic dialogue. I made similar arguments about the danger of inappropriate, violent metaphors in my book For God's Sake, Shut Up! Together these two columns remind us of the importance and power of words. We should respect language and those who work to carefully craft it and we must be careful with the rhetorical choices we make.

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