Saturday, April 6, 2019

Language of the Times III

The Death—and possible rebirth—of discourse

I’ve written here about language before—typically screeds lambasting the cooptation of perfectly good words and phrases like faith. But I’m switching gears this time, writing about an crafty verbal stratagem that might just save American political discourse. My Aunt Monessa Overby, who I’ve written about before, was born on the same date I was, 27 years before me. It’s a unique connection that has kept us close over the years. On the phone the other day, she shared this advice: “What I’m trying to do,” she said, “is avoid saying ‘I am a Democrat.’ Instead, when asked, I say, ‘I tend to vote for Democrats.’” She went on to tell me that she had, in fact, voted for at least one Republican: Dwight D. Eisenhower. Now, I’ve never voted for a declared Republican, but there have been Republicans who, if they had decided to run, would have gotten considerable attention from me. The point being, we express our political affiliation in this country as though we’re describing some in-bread, inextricable part of our identity. “I am a Republican,” we say. Or, “I am a Democrat.” But in reality, neither is true, ever, and, in fact, neither ever could be true. And that is simply because the Republican and Democratic parties have both evolved over the years (Republicans: party of Lincoln. Democrats: Home for decades to vile southern racists.) And, in fact, they’ll continue to do so. (I doubt my aunt could ever conceive of voting for anyone in today’s Republican Party.)

But how does this save discourse? Well, I shifted things a little in that conversation with Monessa. I said, “Think what a different impression you’d make if you used that phrasing when starting a conversation—like, ‘How do you tend to vote?’ instead of ‘Republican or Democrat?’” She hadn’t thought of that, but it resonated with her, and I now put it to you: We all—particularly us late boomers—have those people in our lives who we know have different, and sometimes opposing, political views, so we either avoid political discourse with them at all costs, or find ourselves in debates that are either useless or emotionally scarring, and typically both. Political polarization gets personal sometimes, unfortunately.

So, for those friends, and even acquaintances, of opposing political persuasions, try this new way of asking, and even more than that, try this new way of thinking, about political affiliation. Because we don’t vote for a particular political party because of flowery, often equivocating sentences in campaign speeches and party platform documents: We do it for human reasons. We do it because we see underprivileged people in our communities and beyond, and we want to help them. We do it because a close relative or neighbor was killed in a war, and we want to know why, and we want their families to be cared for. We do it because we’ve seen both arrogant opulence and brave, completely unnecessary poverty. Any of these feelings, impulses, and attitudes might be shared by the person you’re talking to. And I think we can all assume—particularly in this polarized age—that this approach has a better chance than starting with, “Republican or Democrat?”


Monessa said...

While I come with a bias about you and your insights, Bruce, I can also say objectively that your thoughtfulness in writing this IS an inspiration. You have reinforced and expanded my thinking.......and my efforts to put the ideas into action. If not, it all remains stuck on this paper (screen). Aunt Monessa

Melissa said...

I love this, Bruce! Do you know this short essay by Paul Graham - Keep Your Identity Small? That impulse of your aunt's, to avoid labeling herself or her interlocutor, seems to come from the same instinct: when we apply a label to our identity, we tend to limit ourselves. The irony of Graham's title then, is that by keeping our identities small, we keep our humanity large. Your aunt knows what she's doing!

I've recently tried to extend the same idea to all the ways in which I might label myself or others, and not just negative labels, either - I'm trying not to call myself a "writer" any more, for instance. I'm a person who writes. The minute "writer" becomes part of my identity I feel a kind of pressure to defend it... I get defensive about it, even if only to myself. Which honestly just takes psychic energy away from more productive uses... like writing?

Anyway, this is good stuff. Thank you for sharing it.