The Purpose of Language

Perhaps Tallyrand was right when he (purportedly) said that language was given to man to conceal his thoughts; we sure aren’t using it in order to communicate with each other these days.

In order to use language to exchange ideas, rather than to evade the chore of thinking, we’d have to stop the increasing tendency to substitute labeling for communicating. There are two major problems with that substitution: it allows us to avoid responding to the merits of an argument, and the labels themselves are all too often devoid of any meaningful content.

As many of you know, I alternate columns in the IBJ with Peter Rusthoven–I write one week, he the next. Generally, we do not take issue with each other, but a few weeks ago, I wrote a column that criticized the GOPs repeated efforts to derail “Obamacare,” including the House of Representatives’ forty (meaningless/posturing) votes.  Rusthoven disagreed with that column, as he has a perfect right to do. But opened his “response” by pointing out that I am (in his lexicon, at least) a liberal. The implication was clear: we need not spend any time on the merits of her arguments, because we’ve placed her in this particular box and we have all made up our minds about the content of that box.

It may not be fair to pick on Peter for this behavior, because he is far from the only person who engages in it–on either side of the political spectrum. Furthermore, we all classify others to some extent; it’s human and it’s often efficient. The problem is, if we are going to affix a label that actually assists us in understanding where another person is coming from, we need to agree on the meaning of that label. And these days, we don’t.

Labels have lost their descriptive utility–they’ve become insults. Epithets. This is especially true of political labels.

A couple of years back, I proposed a quiz:

What highly placed political figure took each of the following actions?
  • Established the Environmental Protection Agency
  • Pardoned a powerful person who had committed a felony
  • Changed the rules governing welfare to restrict benefits and add work requirements
  • Defended the right of gays to serve in the military
  • Imposed wage and price controls during an inflationary spiral
The answers are: Richard Nixon established the EPA and imposed wage and price controls during his presidency; Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon after his resignation; Bill Clinton proposed and signed legislation “reforming welfare as we know it;” and Barry Goldwater vigorously defended the right of gays to serve openly in the military.
Which of these actions–and political figures– would we label “liberal” and which “conservative”?
Since Obama’s election, the problem has only worsened. The people who insist that the President is a “socialist” clearly don’t have the faintest idea what a socialist is. (And as I have pointed out elsewhere, he can’t be both a socialist and a Nazi at the same time; “National Socialism” is not the same thing as the political philosophy known as socialism.)
Actually, when I read “The Audacity of Hope,” it reminded me of my own platform when I ran for Congress in 1980–and at the time, I was labeled a conservative Republican.
When I encounter one of these accusatory critics, I want to shout “Agree with the President or disagree with him on the merits of his performance or positions. The substitution of (highly inaccurate) labels simply lets people know that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
What reasonable people hear when a label is used in lieu of an argument is: I don’t like person X or position Y.  I have no clear reason for my animus, and no persuasive counter to his position, so I’ll just call up a handy label.
That’s not communication, and it doesn’t advance any debate.  Tallyrand to the contrary, it doesn’t even conceal the speaker’s thoughts.


  1. An old friend told me long ago, “We are not always responsible for the results of what we say.” He also told me, “No judgement IS a judgement; we are giving tacit agreement to the status quo.” A former friend and staunch Republican told me he couldn’t believe I was a liberal because I believe in capital punishment. He obviously didn’t hear all of my side of conversations on many issues and ended our friendship due to what HE believed I believed. We do label others and are labeled by others based on what we said – too often rather what they think/believe we said. Also too often, people are not listening to what we say but are mentally preparing their response; this is so they can put forth their views on the subject at hand.

    Remember that old children’s game, Telephone. A row of us would begin a whispered converstion at one end; it was passed on from one player to the next and the last player would repeat out loud what they heard. Rarely was it even close to the original whispered comment. With the bombardment of news and opinions via all forms of media today, we must pick and choose which version is OUR truth…but we need to research answers for full information because we are getting the speaker/writer’s version of their own truth. I tried; I sincerely tried in 2008 to listen carefully to both campaigns but…listening to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s campaign speeches then turning to John Mccain and Sarah Palin’s version infuriated and disgusted me. They were too often more interested in “repeating” their views of the opposition comments than getting across their own platform. Here is where language fails to relay vital information to a nation in deep trouble. We are still in deep trouble; even with the upswing in the economy and improvement in joblessness, due to elected officials (GOP) not hearing the language being loudly spoken by the majority of the American public regarding our NEEDS. The battle over so-called “Obamacare” is a national embarassment as well as keeping people in need of health care afraid of what tomorrow will bring from Congress. THEIR language is easily understood – stop any forward movement by President Obama and the Democrats on all issues!

  2. Excellent post!
    I generally find that this translation guide helps me distinguish the content of these various labels:
    communist = socialist = liberal — all mean “poopyhead”
    teabagger = fascist = nazi — all mean “poopyhead”

    The list can go on; the translation remains the same.

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