THE BLOG
09/21/2012 05:58 pm ET | Updated Nov 21, 2012

Trash Talk in Political Campaign Helps No One

As the political conversation gets nastier and nastier, you have to wonder, did we do right to tell our children when they got upset to "Use your words, not your fists"?

Maybe we should rethink that. Maybe we should scrounge up boxing gloves for Republican Rep Todd Akin who coined the term "legitimate rape"; for Maine's Republican governor Paul LePage who compared the IRS to the Gestapo and for Maryland's Republican congressman Roscoe Bartlett who somehow managed to compare federally issued student loans to the Holocaust.

We could put these three in a ring to duke it out with Dick Harpootlian, Pat Lehman and John Burton, the three Democrats who compared individual Republicans to Nazis.

What a mess the political season has been for those of us who prefer language that informs over language that inflames. Trash talk may be as much a part of campaigning as trotting out the spouse and three well-groomed children for photo ops, but this year, there seems to be more vitriol than usual, especially from the GOP.

Perhaps it just seems like more because there are so many more outlets for insults, uh, I mean, unvetted opinion. Words that attract lots of hits on the Internet take on lives of their own, says George Lakoff, professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. The more people repeat certain words, the greater the impact these words carry, which means even more people use them. Lakoff, a consultant to Democrats, says conservatives understand more clearly than their progressive colleagues the persuasive power of language repetition. (Remember the Newt Gingrich-endorsed manual, Language: A Key Mechanism of Control)? Lakoff suggests one reason for that is because they are more likely to go to business school and study marketing.

There's a risk in pushing language too far, as Akin found out. Last year, he and other House Republicans, including Paul Ryan, now vice presidential candidate, considered a bill that would allow federal funds to be used for abortions only in cases of "forcible rape." That phrase was withdrawn following a moderate amount of public opposition.

Akin appeared again this year talking about rape and, unfortunately for him and his party, substituting the word "legitimate" for "forcible." Women rightly went ballistic over the idea that rape could ever be considered legitimate. Akin later said he used the phrase "legitimate rape" to distinguish between rapes that were forced upon women and sexual activities that women "claimed" were rapes. Then, as if that weren't bad enough, he argued that a "forcible" rape often doesn't cause a pregnancy because "the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down."

This is simply not accurate, according to Hal Herzog, a psychology professor at Western Carolina University who teaches a course in human sexuality. According to several studies of fertility, "women are at least twice as likely to conceive as a result of rape as by consensual sex," he wrote in the Huffington Post. You mean all women don't carry around contraception just in case? How silly of them.

The scariest thing, says Lakoff, is that many Republicans aren't twisting the language simply to attract votes, they actually believe what they say.

"I wish they were just twisting the language," he said.

As the elections approach, I'm counting on the fact that many ordinary Americans care about how words are used and the ideas that words convey. I was encouraged by the hit in the polls that Akin sustained after he stuck his foot in his mouth. Another sign is this: When the Pew Center asked voters whether they were more interested in party platforms or speeches, a majority said platforms were more important. Platforms are written to inform. Maybe citizens are more discerning than politicians give them credit for.

Wise parents do tell their young children to use words, not fists. They follow up by teaching their children which words are appropriate and which are not. The most important thing they can teach, according to a former colleague of mine at the Washington Post, is that words are a way to thought itself. You don't know what you think until you either say it or write it. Sloppy communication is not only an indication of sloppy thinking, it also encourages it. (The same could be said of mean-spirited discourse.)

Ted Gup, formerly a Washington Post reporter and now a professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston, wrote a wonderful piece earlier this year for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he bemoaned students' frequent use of the word "like," as in "like, when I, like, think about this I like... "

He criticized professors who allowed such sloppiness in class and what he said about them could just as easily be said about many politicians. Instructors who allow sloppy language in class, he wrote, are:

... the Vichy of vocabulary... They are implicitly teaching that clarity is not a virtue, that self-editing is passé and that intellectual rigor is no longer valued...

Reflection, in a time of instant messaging, seems as quaint as the quill pen and the flickering of candles. We extol critical thinking but wince to make room for a quiet period to allow it entrance. We attach a premium to spontaneity, even if it produces blather. Better to have the mouth moving than the wheels of the brain quietly turning.

Gup decided to take a small step toward cutting out some of the classroom blather. Every time a student used the word "like" improperly, he would hold up a big sign with "like" on it. Use of "like" declined dramatically. "It was a way for me to begin to take back something that I feared had been lost," Gup wrote. "It may be that years from now, they will remember me for nothing more than curing them of their addiction to 'like.' That may be a small thing, but it is a beachhead in advancing the cause of clarity, critical thinking, and personal accountability -- theirs and mine."

We are all accountable for what we say, politicians included.