September 5, 2008
In today's political, rhetorically cluttered soundscape, it is important to reflect on two seemingly incompatible facts: talk is cheap, and words matter.
This came to me not long after Sen. John McCain selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, when Larry King asked Democratic analyst James Carville for his reaction.
Carville smirked and derisively dismissed Palin. He narrowly pigeonholed her as pro-life (political-speak for lacking appeal with women voters), a "creationist" (political-speak for lacking appeal to intelligent, reasonable people) and as a small-town mayor (political-speak for lacking credible experience).
Susan Reimer of The Baltimore Sun editorialized: "Does McCain think we will be so grateful for a skirt on the ticket that we won't notice that she's anti-abortion, a member of the NRA and thinks creationism should be taught alongside evolution?"
The similarity of the two reactions is due, in part, to the real-time production of "talking points," those partisan checklists of standard responses designed by political operatives of both parties to elevate or denigrate a candidate with voters.
The media routinely oversimplify. Time magazine did it with a cover story on Barack Obama that featured his photograph with the question "When you look at this photo, what do you see?" The multiple-choice answers were limited t 1) Black Man; 2) Healer; 3) Novice; 4) Radical; 5) The Future; 6) All of the above.
That's clever, and it may match the attention span of a population accustomed to sound bites and bumper-sticker politics, but is it an adequate way to decide our collective political future?
Media professionals justify sound-bite journalism with studies proving that today's population lacks the time, interest or capacity to digest substantive analysis of issues. In fact, what we are witnessing is the "marketizing" of the political process by media that have themselves been marketized.
Back in my first sales job, we used talking points to quickly help a prospective client identify the preferability of our product over others. I was taught to highlight the features, advantages and benefits of my product over the competitors.
Were politicians products and elections simply about "closing a sale," such an approach might be tolerable. But the process for making critically important decisions should be more substantial than the one marketers use to help us select a toothpaste, deodorant or car.
Unfortunately, it isn't.
Today's political communication is essentially an ad campaign. It's not designed to help us go deeper, but rather to cause us to "feel" rather than "think" about candidates and issues.
A few years ago, scholar Deborah Tannen described our media as "An Argument Culture," noting that what passes for deliberation today is two talking heads on opposite sides of an issue who yell slogans at each other while a moderator throws gas on the fire to keep it the conversation hot.
The consequences are devastating.
After years of oversimplified cheap talk, the public's reasoning capacities are diminished. George Orwell saw it coming: "If thought corrupts language," he warned, "language can also corrupt thought."
Instead of seeking common ground and reasonable, fact-based solutions to our collective challenges, we have spent hours dissecting the significance of 17-year-old Bristol Palin's pregnancy.
The religious dimension of the campaign also has been trivialized into archetypal buzzwords like pro-life, creationism, anti-gay marriage or evangelical -- each inserted when needed for effect. Meanwhile, the really important values and beliefs beneath the rhetoric about religious convictions go unexplored, and therefore misunderstood, and easily exploited in a superficial argument culture.
Orwell suggested a way out of a polluted rhetoric. "Political chaos is connected with the decay of language," he said. "One can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end."
Our only way out of this communication quagmire is dialogue -- reasonable, productive and substantive dialogue about issues that matter. Communicators must believe that ideas matter, and they must communicate in language that enriches and clarifies a candidate's positions and underlying values.
If we stay on our current course we will, to paraphrase media critic Neil Postman, "amuse ourselves and our political system to death."
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. Used by permission. All rights reserved.