The Consequence of Destroying Meaning in the English Language

A typical conversation about any everyday experience, these days, commonly goes like this:
“That was amazing.”
“I agree.  It was just incredible.”

Notice that the words “amazing” and “incredible” are used interchangeably as synonyms, despite their having distinct, well-defined meanings of their own.   “Amazing” actually means out-of-the ordinary and is therefore synonymous with “Remarkable.”  In contrast, “Incredible” means “Not Believable,” and therefore literally suggests that the second speaker is accusing the first one of distorting the truth.

An important implication of this continual misuse of these words is a degradation of the language, ultimately creating a permanent separation between words and the true meanings they were designed to communicate.  After all, if every mundane observation is categorized in common speech as amazing or incredible by large segments of the population (indicating something extremely positive or extremely negative) these terms quickly forfeit any meaning and are no longer capable of communicating something that is truly amazing or incredible.

The true meaning of these words, however, can still be understood by gaining an appreciation of their historical usage.  The best example can be found in the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which effectively communicates the power of the word that has been consigned to triviality in our modern culture.  That power is reflected in its lyrics

Amazing Grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found,
Was blind but now I see.

These words have been used in a wide variety of circumstances to express the despair of lost hope in the wake of some specific adversity, and the weight that is lifted by the unexpected appearance of a force that restores the suffering party to his or her previous state of lucidity.

The flagrant disregard for the use of language to communicate truth in preference for exaggerated and extreme statements does not stop with everyday experiences.  Food, for instance, doesn’t merely taste good, but every culinary event is “delicious.”  Of course, if every meal is delicious, meaning extremely tasty, then nothing is truly delicious.  So, “delicious” has become the new “amazing.”  Similarly, some occurrence that the lemmings in our society perceive as very positive is now labeled as “awesome.”  In reality, awesomeness is very rare, but in our culture, “awesome” has become the new “incredible.”

Other uses of language that would have had the potential for meaningful communication in a more authentic context are now employed ubiquitously in a way that reduce them to superficial exchanges, where all participants express themselves in empty chatter, neither seeking nor giving any real information.  The most egregious examples are the universal question, “How are you?” followed by the universal command, “Have a good day.”   Vis-à-vis the question, everyone responds “Good,” regardless of how they really feel, with the understanding that the inquirer really doesn’t care how they are and would be put off by an honest answer.  Similarly, whether the respondent proceeds to have a good day after the encounter is independent of the command that he or she do so.

In addition, these perverse modes of expression have been adopted in interview situations where one party, the interrogator, is seeking information about some topic from another party, who is credited with having expert knowledge on the subject.   In responding to any query, experts will typically begin their answer with the word “So,” implying that their opinions carry the weight of self-evident conclusions and are  not to be questioned.  Responses to any clarifying questions are then initiated with the interjection “Look,” suggesting that the person seeking such additional information has no business doubting the expert’s insightfulness and therefore deserves to be bullied.

At first glance, it might appear that harping on these substitutions of the sloppy usage of words in place of their traditional counterparts might be a case of placing form over substance, like objecting that an adjective was being used as an adverb, or an intransitive verb was being used as a transitive verb.   But there is a deeper, more sinister development that has occurred contemporaneously with this separation of language from meaning and of truth from falsehood that has enabled it to come into being.  This event occurred during the 2016 presidential election cycle in which Republican candidate Trump was elected over Democratic candidate Clinton.  Some of the features that characterize the Trump presidency are often attributed to the president’s unorthodox personal style, but I would argue that those features have been facilitated by the very developments involving the cultural misuse of language that I have identified here.

What are the elements that characterize the Trump presidency?  I believe there are six:  First, COUNTERFACTUALISM, the communication of a narrative to the public that is clearly inconsistent with readily verifiable events; Second, NOVICITY, the complete absence of relevant governing experience on the part of the president and his staff; Third, ELITISM, the drafting of a legislative agenda and the appointment of a cabinet staff chosen to promote the mission of further improving the lot of the extremely wealthy at the expense of minorities and the middle class; Fourth, INCOMPETENCE, to date, the complete inability to enact any element of this agenda; Fifth, RACISM, evidence of a consistent pattern of preferential treatment  for white nationals over minorities;  and Sixth, ISOLATIONISM, the forfeiture of America’s traditional world leadership role through its withdrawal from global organizations and multilateral trade agreements.

The misrepresentation of past and present reality by the president and his representatives is the direct result of the current divorce of words from the truth they were brought into the language to communicate.  These individuals rely heavily on two language fads in particular to implement their message.  First, there is the penchant for exaggeration: Not only are many of their enterprises “amazing” and “incredible,” but everything they do is “great,” while all their opponents’ efforts are “horrible.”  Second, their dependence on superficiality, championing simplistic positions that appeal to a narrow segment of the electorate supported by well-organized lobbyists (such as in the case of the right to bear arms,) or naively explaining, for example, that another country (China) should solve the U.S.’s conflict with a third country (North Korea).

The resulting poor correlation between the president’s pronouncements and any trustworthy information is further exacerbated by his heavy reliance on the social media platform “Twitter” and his representation by particularly uncommunicative communication directors.  The antidote for overcoming these obstacles is the role of a free press, whose job it is to separate truth from fantasy.  Despite the roadblocks news organizations are required to overcome and the barrage of criticism they receive from the administration, they have performed yeoman service, recognizing that their work is the critical element in creating a reliable source of real information in an authoritarian regime.

Two of the other characteristics are closely related: it is almost axiomatic that an administration sadly lacking in governing experience will demonstrate incompetence in accomplishing any legislative goals.  But the more fundamental question is why, with control of the presidency and both houses of congress, the Republican Party is still unable to push through its elitist agenda.  The answer is found in the wisdom the country’s founders, who allowed for the possibility that the public might make poor electoral decisions and so designed a constitution with checks and balances, making it hard for an antidemocratic government to do any real damage.

The administration has proposed deporting Mexicans who have been living and working in the country for years, building a wall on the southern border to keep Mexican immigrants out, and claiming naively that the Mexican government should be forced to finance the project.    It has also proposed a ban on all Muslims seeking to enter the country, it has tried to “repeal and replace” the signature health care legislation of Trump’s predecessor, the first black president, which would have the effect of causing millions of citizens to lose their health insurance coverage, and it has put forth a tax overhaul proposal that would be a windfall for corporations and wealthy Americans while raising taxes on voters with extremely high medical costs or living in states with significant state and local tax burdens.

The main branch of government that has prevented the most blatantly discriminatory elements of these plans from being enacted has been the Judiciary, which has ruled them unconstitutional.  The Mexican President has made it abundantly clear he has no intention of financing a wall, and Congress has been unwilling to allocate funds for such a wasteful project in a federal budget already hampered by an out-of-control deficit.  But it has also been the Legislature, divided by opposing factions in a Republican-controlled Senate and House of Representatives, that has been unable to enact elitist laws, and so to date, in the conflict between the Trump administration and the safeguards put in place by the country’s founders, the safeguards are winning.

Candidate Trump had made his platform abundantly clear in the Republican primary race, which began with 17 presidential hopefuls, and he still he won the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency.  How then, did he manage to get elected?  The basic reason is that the American electorate, as it has demonstrated many times in the past, lacks the character to resist the appeal of a demagogue who identifies a scapegoat to blame for all its problems and makes the unrealistic promise that his election will solve all its woes.  In this case, he tied the long-term trend of job and wage stagnation accompanying technological progress with white workers’ antipathy toward a black president during the previous 8 years, specifically holding his predecessor, President Obama responsible.

But an equally important reason was the weakness of the Democratic nominee, candidate Clinton.   Like President Obama, her candidacy had historical significance:  following the first black president, she was the first female nominee of a major party.  Unfortunately, her behavior bore the stain of dishonesty and corruption.  In fact, her flaws are comparable to those of President Trump:  he refuses to distance himself credibly from his global business interests and won’t release his tax returns, while she took exorbitant fees from financial firms, secretly arranged for the Democratic National Committee to sabotage the candidacy of her rival for the Democratic nomination, and, as President Obama’s first Secretary of State, she stored classified information on a private email server that was then vulnerable to cyber attacks by a foreign government.  It is no wonder that in requiring voters to choose between the lesser of two evils, 2016 was marked by historically low voter turnout.   And, although both candidates continually claimed to speak for the American people, neither has ever apologized to the American people for their behavior.

I now turn to the final two elements that define the Trump presidency.  Racism is most apparent in the president’s obsession with his predecessor, whether more people attended his inauguration, falsely claiming President Obama wiretapped the president’s home, and even whether President Obama was legitimately eligible to hold the office by virtue of his place of birth.  Moreover, the influence of racism is seen in a number of his cabinet choices, in his failure to denounce Neo-Nazi violence on a college campus, and even in his judgments about terrorism incidents, needing more information before he could comment on a white rifleman who massacred hundreds of concertgoers, but vilifying a Muslim who killed 9 bicyclists with a truck.

But again, racism has its roots in the peculiarities of the misuse of language that has become so rampant in the society at large.  Thus, when white people casually ask minorities the universal question (“How are you?”)  and give them the universal command (“Have a nice day,”) they seem oblivious to the additional degree of insipidness  they impose on them.  Racism is so deeply ingrained in the larger culture that even white people who fancy themselves sensitive to the burdens of discrimination are often intolerant of members of minority groups who express themselves more sophisticatedly than the enlightened  white person privately expects.

The basis for the final element of the Trump presidency is his message that, under his predecessor’s leadership, America’s allies exploited the country financially.  The language the president uses to signal his intention to change this state of affairs is “America First,” which became his campaign slogan, and this expression has resonated well with his base of alienated voters.

This simplistic slogan, though, hides a very serious departure from the country’s long-held foreign policies.  Now, as the new president lectures the country’s allies that they need to pay a larger share of their common defense expenditures and to grant America more favorable terms of trade, he also makes friendly overtures to a number of antidemocratic regimes, most notably Russia, on whose president he showers praise (one possible reason that he has chosen to pursue this reversal of the country’s traditional foreign policy might be that President Trump committed some embarrassing indiscretion while performing his business dealings in Russia, and the Russian President has threatened to expose him if he does not maintain this new policy.)

One result of these changes is that the president continually threatens to withdraw from the international organizations in which America has traditionally enthusiastically participated (e.g., the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization)  and to renegotiate established treaties (e.g. the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Iran anti-nuclear deal, and the Paris Climate Accord.)  Should any of these plans literally be implemented, the effect would be to leave the country isolated from its allies and viewed as untrustworthy by everyone else.  Like the other elements of this presidency, this effort represents a retreat into the past.  It should be recalled that America’s dalliance with the now-discredited policy of isolationism in the 1930’s ultimately led to its being drawn into the conflict of World War II anyway.

I believe I have demonstrated that modern society’s linguistic sloppiness has been a contributing factor that has led to the Trump Presidency in all its elements.  Nevertheless, the absence to date of a groundswell of protest suggests that that the public may have become inured to the president’s language and his behavior, from his articulation of an alternate understanding of reality, to his reactionary perspectives on social issues, to the attempts to enact his elitist legislative agenda, and to his reckless foreign policy, which ultimately has the potential to involve the country in nuclear war.

Although there is an official reaction in the form of investigations by two Congressional committees and one special prosecutor, the scope of these seems to be limited to a search for evidence of collusion or obstruction, rather than the charge of treason that would be applicable if it is discovered that the president is  indeed willingly being blackmailed by the president of Russia.  Meanwhile, everyday life continues as usual, with no real sense of urgency and no awareness of this connection between the Trump presidency and the language people use to communicate with one another every day.  Every citizen who reads this essay should remember this lesson the next time he or she unthinkingly describes some phenomenon as amazing or incredible, or the next time they ask someone how they are and tells them to have a good day.

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