Like any sober college student looking for a good time while spending a semester in Washington, D.C., I found myself forgoing the bar hopping and wading instead through the erratic displays at Capitol Hill Books, a small bookstore just around the corner from Pennsylvania Avenue and the ever-delicious District Taco.
The store is full from floor to ceiling with what one co-owner calls “chaotic glory” — a bibliophile’s paradise and a clean freak’s perdition. Admittedly, I came to the shop more to admire the aesthetics of the shelves than with the hopes of finding a book to occupy my sparse free time.
What I did find among the morass was a salty old manager with a passion for words. Behind his checkout desk hung a sign labeled, “Not Spoken Here,” which listed words and phrases banned from the establishment. Anyone caught saying “like,” “perfect,” “awesome,” “totally” or “have a good one” would find themselves confronted by the former Navy admiral ordering them to crack open a thesaurus.
Maybe all of us could use a similarly brusque English referee hovering over our shoulder.
Because I see the words we use to talk with and about each other building the wedge that pushes us to our extremes.
Speech is powerful. The manipulative know this truth, and the unassuming fall prey to it. That truth is what drives Helmholtz Watson in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” to welcome his fate as an outcast on the Falkland Islands; he believes the freedom of his words there can spark an intellectual awakening in an ignorant world. That truth is also what made his government-sanctioned propaganda prior to his exile so effective. “Words can be like X-Rays if you use them properly,” he says. “They’ll go through anything.”
Which is why I’m worried about the way we talk, not just on the national stage, but here at home. I hear friends give well-intentioned comments about marginalized populations that unwittingly put those people in a “sub-normal” category. I read posts with subtle misogyny, and occasionally I’ll see an outright lie. Anything of the sort, when aimed at another human, pulls that person beneath his or her inherent divinity.
And the frequency with which we see and hear these things is disappointing. I’m not wont to watch cable news for extended periods of time, but for a bit of homework I decided to watch panel discussions on MSNBC, clips from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh speak at a President Trump rally.
There can be only two outcomes from this kind of hyperbolic, provocative speech. Either a listener shouts toward the heavens, “Yes! Finally someone says it like it is,” or a listener scoffs in disgust and flips the channel to their prefered news network. Talk about an echo chamber.
Here’s the real travesty: Everyone I listened to had nuggets of truth, something worth talking about. I heard tough questions and glimmers of a constructive argument, but those moments were like ice cubes floating in a toxic soda. I’m not drinking that.
That acrid tone is what stops otherwise rational people from having rational arguments. That’s what plagues the current administration and foils it from building consensus on real issues.
Speaking of the president, I’m fully aware of the effect of his rhetoric. If any of us could devise a way to hack into his Twitter account and edit his tweets before he fires them off, we would have done it on day two of his term. So far as I know, MIT tech whizzes are still stumped.
Which means, as trite as it sounds, the onus falls on us. What are we willing to do to tone it down and engage in the real debate? What can we tweak to give everyone the full measure of their humanity?38 comments on this story
Maybe the Capitol Hill Books owner was on to something. Here’s what’s on my “Not Spoken Here” list when talking politics: Dems. Snowflake. RINO. Liberal trash. Right-wing Nazi fascist. Nut job. A host of four-letter words. Fake news. I also prefer to preface “Trump” with his presidential title when I’m speaking. The people elected him to sit in the White House, and that deserves a baseline measure of respect.
The power undergirding the speech of the past two years is the same power that can get us back on track to actual debate and fix a fractured country. If you need help finding some new vocabulary words, I know a great bookstore.