Change Our Language, Change Our Politics
A Road Scholar Program by Ted Williams, III
Apr 11, 2024
Are we hopelessly destined for a future of political combat in which Americans are unable to even hear the other side? What if bringing us a little closer was as simple as changing the political language we use?
The current American political climate is notoriously full of acrimony and vitriol. Research suggests that the partisan division in the US electorate is widening as Americans are increasingly segregated by class, geography, and ideology.
From issues of race to the role of government, language plays a significant role in fueling political division. For the sake of simplicity and expediency, we often reduce controversial conversations to sound bites, hashtags, and the language of marketing campaigns. Terms like conservative and liberal, black and white, pro-choice and pro-life, gun control, and illegal immigrant all are loaded with a set of definitions and often erroneous assumptions that drive intense emotion. For example, the word “black” means evil and wicked. The word “white” means pure and innocent.
- When these terms are ascribed to human beings, why would they not evoke feelings about character, superiority, or the perceived threat or guilt of groups of people?
- If someone is pro-choice, are they pro-abortion?
- If a person is pro-gun control, are they against the Second Amendment?
- Does being for the ‘dreamers’ mean that one is against national borders?
- What does support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement say about positions toward other ethnic groups? Are people rigidly and consistently either conservative or liberal?
This talk is designed to change the way we discuss politics. As a former candidate for public office and someone who has spent a career having difficult conversations around the topics of religion and politics, Ted Williams III has had a plethora of experiences navigating these dangerous waters. Particularly online, our political discussions are filled with animosity. The Trump era has exacerbated this problem, although it did not start these divisions. In this presentation, Williams shares multiple stories of both positive and negative interactions both online and face-to-face. After this, Williams explores current research on the topic. Particularly important is UPenn’s recent study on the manipulation and division surrounding the online Common Core debate, and a University of Houston study identifying a correlation between anonymity and incivility in our political discourse.
Drawing from additional social science research about the use of language in sales, Williams argues that simple changes in the way we speak will have a significant impact. The potential for changing language in our political discourse is tremendous. Williams argues that the usage of many soundbite political terms unnecessarily widens the gaps between us and subconsciously justifies bias and inequality. Most political labels in general create false choices and fixed ideological camps that encourage an “us against them” mentality. By changing the terminology that we use in our civil discourse, we can turn down the volume in our conversations; We may realize the commonality of our aspirations and that a commitment to respectful pluralism provides us all with a space to co-exist.