When I decided to start my own blog, I vowed to myself to stay away from politics to the extent possible. There’s already more than enough noise rattling around the inside-the-Beltway echo chamber.
Still, political campaigns bring into sharp focus my interest in how people use and misuse language. Take some recent remarks by Mitt Romney about the Obama camapign.
Before I continue, a brief aside to the politically rabid: in my opinion, all political campaigns are staffed by serial miscommunicators, which is a polite way of saying professional bullshitters. Argue if you must that I’m attacking the Republican Party, but the fact is that I’m using Romney as an example here only because he offers a current example.
In an interview with “CBS This Morning,” Romney said, “The President’s campaign is all about division and attack and hatred.” Responding to a follow-up question, he said, “If you look at the ads that have been described and the divisiveness based upon income, age, ethnicity and so forth, it’s designed to bring a sense of enmity and jealousy and anger, and this is not, in my view, what the American people want to see.”
Nothing exceptional there: Romney’s remarks were straight out of Campaigning 101, which regardless of party usually boils down to a childish “he’s mean and I’m not” appeal. But what I’m more concerned about is the imprecise use of words like “hate” or “hatred,” which, as I said in a previous post, are flung around far too casually.
You can argue, fairly, that the Obama campaign strategy is “designed to bring a sense of enmity and jealousy and anger.” It is. What Romney is suggesting that whatever enmity and jealousy and anger is out there is a) unjustified and b) based on hate. I’d say that’s highly debatable on both counts.
Romney is entitled to disagree about the source of that enmity, jealousy and anger. His campaign would probably say that “the American people” are hostile and angry at President Obama’s policies. (I put “American people” in quotes to make clear I’m talking not about its literal translation, but its bipartisan political one. To wit: “Americans who like the flavor of my Kool-Aid; the rest of you can lick the sweat off my narrow hairy ass.”)
But by prefacing his remark about enmity, jealousy and anger with a charge of “hatred,” Romney turns hate into a synonym for political disagreement. In effect, he’s saying the catalyst for people who are mad at him, his policies or his party is raw, primal, irrational emotion. Careful consideration of those policies and their effects on individual lives doesn’t enter the equation.
Every political campaign relies on fear. The Obama campaign stokes the fear of a White House overrun by greedy, heartless white guys in suits with shrines to Ayn Rand in their offices. The Romney campaign stokes the fears of an America where there’s no room for guns, Ayn Rand or greedy, heartless white guys in suits. (Oh, please … get a sense of humor.)
Whether those are reasonable fears is up to individual voters. But there’s nothing more divisiveness or demoralizing than casting aspersions on what people feel by labeling them as haters.
There was one other part of the CBS interview worth mentioning. Romney said, “The words I use in speeches are words that I craft or put in there or agree with.” If that’s so, perhaps he can school his supposedly hateful and divisive opponents in the perils that come with imprecise language.
The American people — no quotes — expect nothing less.