When Words Cease to Matter

As we struggle to understand the shock of the 2016 Presidential election, we realize how deeply language, on which productive debate depends, has been abused. Words matter. As so aptly and ironically put in Melania Trump’s plagiarized words at the Republican national convention, “your word is your bond.” The gravest problem at this moment then lies not in the hate- and fear-mongering racism and misogyny that critics accuse the Republican candidate of engaging in, although these are indeed frightening for many. It lies in the willingness of the President-elect himself and of others to disregard things he has actually said. Such disregard of language goes beyond lying and giving offense. It ruptures the possibility of a meaningful political sphere. Dialogue and discussion, including civil disagreement, depend on words. All become impossible when words cease to matter.

Deliberate disregard of language poses a worse danger to political discussion and to the public realm than do ignorance and lies. Ignorance can be met with education. Falsehood and deception can be called out as illusion; they can be challenged in the name of what actually appears to be. Even insults can be acknowledged and addressed. When, by contrast, speakers and hearers routinely disavow or neglect the utterances that they hear or make, they cast words adrift, and language no longer shows us a shared or common world in which to take our bearings.

Such indeed is the situation in the U.S. in the days of disorientation, unease, and unrest following the election of Donald Trump as President. Regardless of what kind of president Trump turns out to be, or of the policies he puts in place, the rhetoric of this election season has shaken our faith in the possibility of meaningful public exchange. This is not because persons are afraid to speak, although some will be. Nor is it because mainstream media has missed or mischaracterized the story, although it has. Our faith is shaken because to deny one’s words is to disregard what is. When this disregard coincides with more talk than ever before, the upshot is a mistrust in the possibility of genuine public exchange.

Trump’s factual misstatements are legion, as fact-checkers have been quick to point out. But the difficulties with Trump’s utterances involve more than the occasional lie. Hannah Arendt reminds us that lies are no stranger to politics: lying is a form of action and politics is the realm of speech and action. Catastrophe comes when lying becomes routine and fact can no longer be distinguished from falsehood. When this happens, what words say no longer matters. Whether or not Trump’s lies are any more responsible for the current catastrophe than are the lies of others, his words leave us at sea.

Even if Trump’s platform, as the most charitable account would have it, can be understood as an “opening bid” for negotiations, we are left wondering just what this bid is. What are his opinions? Which, if any, of his slogans and sound bites matter? How do his claims — of tax cuts and growing infrastructure — cohere? What are his plans to make the United States — clearly not the two continents of “America” — great again? How do all sides sift through the conflicting utterances around his campaign to find the answer? Why is it that now, in the aftermath of the election, so many of us are trying to do so?

What are Trump’s views about the environment, for instance? Would he really do away with the Environmental Protection Agency? How does he plan to create jobs? Exactly what health care policies will he pursue? What are his foreign relations priorities? What is his position on women’s rights? Websites, from the right and the left, offer quotations left and right. From these can be gleaned no more than some possible policies favoring business and an animus against Washington D.C. (Check out the non-partisan www.ontheissues.org.) In 1999, Trump declared himself to be “pro-choice.” In 2011, he proclaimed himself “pro-life,” attributing his flip to stories he had heard. After beginning his run for president, he admitted that he had changed his mind for the purpose of the nomination. He has shifted from claiming that women should be punished for abortions, to announcing that their doctors should be punished for carrying them out, to maintaining that after he appoints a pro-life Supreme Court justice, Roe v Wade would be overturned and the issue would be left to individual States.

These inconsistencies and many other arguably premature or unthought public announcements — on Obama’s nationality, immigration, government reform, gun laws, and the Middle East — indicate that one cannot trust him to mean what he says. Public disorientation — and perhaps even Trump’s own — at the result of the election cannot be blamed entirely on the press or its polling data then. Television and newspapers have studiously relayed and glossed only his own mixed messages, including his enthusiastic and contradictory tweets for attention.

At least some Trump supporters (Muslims for Trump, Women for Trump) have asserted that one cannot take issue with some of Trump’s more offensive remarks precisely because he doesn’t really mean what he says. Some of these supporters claim to be victimized by being identified, by opponents, with the offensive views articulated in or implied by his statements. Such ostensible defenses hardly restore confidence in public discourse.

Other supporters, and Trump himself, deny the very fact that he has said things which we have heard him say. When Trump says “X” and later adds not only “I never meant X,” but also “I never said ‘X’,” fact-checkers work over the issue of whether Trump actually said “X.” His disavowal of having said “X” raises a more crucial issue than what was or was not said though. When what one hears is denied, and the denials continue no matter the facts, the issue becomes one of disregard and not simply disavowal. One can no longer believe one’s ears. No wonder that at least half of the country is reeling. We have entered very shaky ground when we cannot rely on our hearing and speech.

Trump’s readiness to dismiss what words say in favor of what they do only makes things worse. Asked whether he regrets any of the incendiary rhetoric of his campaign, he retorted, “No, I won.” It appears that for him utterances, which are ostensibly “speech acts,” no longer speak, but only act. Unmoored from what they say, they serve as instruments with which to bulldoze his way through the game.

The public dismissal both of what words say and of any commitment to words as saying, leaves us speechless. Literally. At a time when more is being said through a greater variety of media than ever before, it appears that anything can be said and everything can be unsaid. Hence nothing that is said matters. Or perhaps it is only that one cannot tell the difference between what matters and what doesn’t. No matter. The point is that one cannot debate opinions with a person who disregards the very fact of their own statements of opinion. One never knows what further undermining of speech awaits. In such tenuous terrain, words cannot bind. We are deprived of the capacity for political speech with those — or as those — to whom words do not matter.

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First Lady Michelle Obama meets with Melania Trump for tea in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House, Nov. 10, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Upon his victory, Trump mouthed the words that it was time to set divisions aside. It is time for him to put his money where his mouth is. He tells the public, those who can no longer believe their ears, that the week’s protests against him are occurring “because they don’t know me.” Perhaps so. But it is precisely his words and their failure to distinguish fact from falsehood that have made him impossible to know as a political figure, as a speaker and actor in public. His disregard for his own words has contributed to making public speech impossible to trust.

This week’s protests manifest the queasiness in which the evacuation of meaning from speech throws us all. Trump’s challenge now is to show, through his deeds, what he has not shown through his speech — indeed what his utterances have completely thrown into question — that his word is his bond. The task confronting the next leader of the United States must be to affirm that we share — and that he shares with us — a common world in which are respected the conventions of language that make mutual hearing and speech possible. The alternative is a frightening void in which there is no room to say, in words that one can count on to be heard, “I disagree.”

When at the 2016 convention, Melania Trump claimed, in stolen words, that her parents had “impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise; that you treat people with respect,” she referred only to herself and she left out two important phrases. She did not steal enough. When Michelle Obama spoke during the 2008 Democratic national convention, she had explained that “we,” she and Barack, were raised with certain values: “that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect.” She had also added, “even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.” Let us hope that the Donald Trump whom we don’t know finds a way to agree and to commit to a world in which words matter.

Marianne Constable, Dept. of Rhetoric, UC Berkeley

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