Remember, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me?” It isn’t so.
Words, the stock in trade of politics and public policy, express value with as much volatility and meaning as any commodity, stock or bond. Words can be used subtly in ways that let us find meanings in the deeds and thoughts of people across time from many cultures and environments.
Words can provide beauty, wit and incisive observations that cut through the verbal fog others use to restate reality (alternative facts). When scammers and confidence men use such words and blend them with conscienceless lying, the resources of the trusting, the gullible and the greedy are easily looted. Words can brutally condemn, incite, insult and yes, as the fields of psychology and psychiatry have proven, do grievous injury to the mind and the body.
At the moment, we are experiencing new and confusing usages that have the whole nation and perhaps the world totally confounded. On the world stage we have tin-pot tyrants across the globe who manipulate language in ways that would make George Orwell gasp.
Here we have a six-month old presidential administration led by one of the world’s most confounding users of language. We all “hear” what President Trump tweets and says, but apparently his words never should be taken at face value or accepted as statements of truth and intent. Whatever the announcement is, it has to be re-interpreted, defended and modified by his inner circle of explainers. Now, in just this week, we finally know that his first utterance is always his truest, and almost universally dangerous, destructive, ill-informed and morally wrong.
Kansans have not been isolated or exempted from these broad trends in unhelpful communication. First, we have the Big Lie syndrome. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach currently stands as the most skillful practitioner of this technique. His unfounded, unsubstantiated claims of extensive voter fraud that support changes in laws and regulations to make voting more difficult and alienating have been conclusively and consistently debunked. Yet these claims remain the stock in trade of Mr. Kobach, who redoubles his efforts by repeating the claims and adding personal attacks on the motives and values of the people who dare disagree.
The “Use of Fluff and Folderol” prize has to go to our reportedly departing incumbent Gov. Sam Brownback. He made unfounded promises of economic sunshine and progress for all Kansans to gain legislative approval of enormous tax reductions. All criticism was rejected but never refuted with any evidence. The clear failure of the “real-life experiment” was never admitted. His words in defense always have accused others or deflected blame towards outside, uncontrollable variables such as commodity prices, low oil prices and drought. Never did he claim any personal responsibility for the failure that everyone else could see.
Finally, we have the flip side of words to deceive, confuse and deny truth. Our Sen. Pat Roberts manifests an unwillingness to communicate at all. Doubtless he absorbed reports of the oppositional public meeting experience Sen. Jerry Moran had in Palco concerning repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Roberts chose to ignore the majority of his constituents during the “repeal or repeal and replace” votes in the U.S. Senate earlier this month. When he returned to Kansas for the summer recess he simply made no plans to publicly converse with his run-of-the-mill constituents.
Of what value are words when they come from voices and minds that are not inclined to truth, deliberation and debate?
Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.