The Language of Thugs

For someone who deals in words, one of the most disheartening aspects of current politics is the demise of language as a tool for inspiring – or even communicating with – people.

And it’s not just the candidates. The president of the Philippines and the governor of Maine talk dirty; and someone should take away Anthony Weiner’s cellphone.

The degeneration of language should worry more than English teachers. It reflects a dearth of ideas. It falls victim to the abuse of demagogues who replace it with mindless slogans. It becomes a weapon for personal attacks.

Think back to how words have inspired us in times of uncertainty or crisis.

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” John Winthrop told his fearful congregation in Boston Harbor in 1630.

“When in the course of human events” began the Declaration 146 years later, as it laid out a classical and stirring argument for independence.

The words need not be flowery. As Adam Gopnik noted in Angels and Ages, Lincoln built his arguments with simple, lawyerly language that was often underestimated. His 272-word Address wasn’t even the main event at Gettysburg. Edward Everett’s two-hour speech was.

FDR told us the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself;” John Kennedy urged us to “ask not what our country can do for us;” Martin Luther King described a great dream.

Language is the basis of our humanity and our community. It’s time to take it back from thugs.

James G. Blaine

About James G. Blaine

Most of us undervalue what seem our tiny contributions to our communities and the world. As a result, we feel powerless, even victimized. But, like the butterfly effect in science, the lives we lead with our families, in our communities, and at work – all the so-called little things we do – collectively change the world. As I grow older, my ambition grows more modest but not less important: to participate fully and to contribute what I can. That’s my goal with this blog.