Words Matter

It’s sort of par for the course, in politics, for either side of the political aisle to effectively diagnose all that is wrong with the other side. At times there is merit to the arguments being made, and at others it is done so as to distract oneself from the introspection anyone who engages in that profession so desperately needs.

Most often, however, it’s a little bit of both.

I find a certain argument that has been making its way around conservative circles for a little while now to be a lot of both. The argument, originally advanced by U.S. Naval War College’s national security affairs professor Tom Nichols back when the GOP was still litigating the primary in January, goes something like this:

The left is responsible for Trump.

Well, that’s the part of it that serves to distract from the self-reflection the right so desperately needs at this time. But the meritorious part of the argument is that, to quote National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, “Decades of smearing decent Republican candidates leaves [the left-wing media] without credibility on Trump’s demagoguery.”

There is a lot of truth to that. When the Republican base saw what was done to Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush — as well as to any Republican politician who was deemed a “threat” by those on the left — they were left with the understanding that whatever charges are leveled against politicians on the right are meaningless.

Remember, President Obama’s Super PAC (with some not-quite-illegal coordination on the part of the Obama campaign) ran an ad during the 2012 cycle which more or less accused Mitt Romney of murder. Once you’ve called someone a murderer, it’s hard to imagine what kind of accusation would be needed to top that for someone who everyone, no matter what their political affiliation is, would concede is exponentially less decent and honorable than Romney.

It’s more than just the boy who cried “wolf” and the fact that those on the right didn’t heed those warnings during the primary. It is also that the right has been so inculcated with the idea that the left (and their allies in the media) believe they are racists and bigots that many don’t find cause for concern in the fact that Trump cozies up with racists and anti-Semites who populate what is known as the “alt-right.”

That isn’t to say Trump is a bigot; I don’t believe that he is. What I do believe is that he wants some people to believe that he — like them — is one. And that, in and of itself, is almost as bad as bigotry.

There was a heartening sign this past week, when Howard Wolfson, a Democratic strategist who worked for Kerry in 2004 and Hillary in 2008, told The New York Times, “There is enough truth to [this argument] to compel some self-reflection” on the part of his fellow Democrats. He himself owned up to using “language that, in retrospect, was hyperbolic and inaccurate” in previous campaigns and in turn “weakened … our ability to talk about this moment with accuracy and credibility.”

That there even are those who work in the field of politics now willing to recognize this is nothing short of amazing, and it ought to lead us to examine whether it applies to other areas of life as well.

Frum society, as is the case with any orthodoxy, has areas in which there seem to be deficiencies. This a simple fact that isn’t unique to us, and it should not lead us to question our way of life. That’s not to say there aren’t real issues, because there most certainly are.

As we seek to address these challenges, we need to be careful with the language we use and the hyperbole we employ as we try to get others to take us seriously and join us in an effort to tackle them. Words, we now know, really do matter.

Does every single thing we have to work on really need to be described as a crisis? It has become a point where you can’t galvanize public support for any (legitimate) public project without describing it as a crisis.

Incidentally, Dr. R.R. Reno made this very same point in a magazine as it pertains to Trump and the over-the-top rhetoric he always seems to employ. When Trump expresses himself, Reno rightfully points out, he sounds just like many on the left, “minus the verbal drapery that often mimics argument.”

Doesn’t that sound familiar to us as well?

Having issues that need to be dealt with isn’t a crisis; it is a fact of life that will always be true. But employing over-the-top terms means that we lose credibility when a true crisis presents itself, and it also leads people to believe that our way of life really is rife with crises.

It’s also counterproductive. Harav Avigdor Kohen Tzedek (a Rishon who lived almost 800 years ago) explains what Shlomo Hamelech says in Koheles (9:17), “Divrei chachamim b’nachas nishma’im — The words of the wise spoken softly are heard” refers to words of rebuke.

If we aim to get others to change something we think to be wrong, the correct approach is a soft one, not with the overuse of hyperbole. If we want to be heard, we need to speak more softly.