By Mark Williams, Ph.D
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento
(from the regular Column: “Meaningful-Faith: Words, the Word, and a Life of Substance”)
Politics invites a certain (let’s call it) informal relationship with words. Reagan’s Freedom Fighters, Hillary Clinton’s Basket of Deplorables, the Republican’s death tax, and the Democrats’ reproductive health all come easily to mind. We weren’t fifteen days into the Biden administration before a New York Times columnist recommended that the President appoint a Reality Czar to coordinate responses to disinformation, a recommendation which invited so many rapid, rabid, and self-righteous comparisons to George Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” that it became an overnight but blessedly brief meme stream.
But this (what did we call it, informal?) relationship between politics and meaning is hardly a twenty-first century contribution to political theory.
Manifest Destiny is a purposely unfocused bit of Americana that first appeared in 1845. And Orwell himself noted—right after World War II, when you’d think he should have still been out drinking beer and chanting We’re #1! We’re #1!—that politics worked only by calling up emotional associations with hardly any connections to a clear reality. “Political language,” he said, “has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”  It always has. Would you like examples from Diderot in the Enlightenment? Charlemagne in the Middle Ages? Justinian in Byzantium? Cicero in Rome? Demosthenes in Greece? They are readily available.
So, politics, language, and meaning are a loose confederation of interest groups that all benefit from a certain casual vagueness in their interactions with one another. But let’s turn from politics for a moment and think about lovers. No, not Bill Clinton and (speaking of vaguery) that woman. No, I mean your lovers. Those people who love you and whom you love, somebody who would choose your good above their own success; somebody you would give the last piece of Italian lemon curd cake and not even expect them to notice or to do the dishes after dinner in payment for your kindness.
Look at what happens when we move from politics to family. The way we use words in politics won’t work here in a domestic world of concrete love. Actual love won’t put up with such casual connections between meaning and words. Love does not allow you to weasel out of specificity. Love prefers different methods, asks for different outcomes, claims different rights, makes different demands, and saddles us with different expectations.
No doubt you can be in a marriage where you are both secretively manipulative, playing power games and office politics at home to get what you want. Or you can have a transactional marriage, where a cooperative self-interest is the highest good you are shooting for: I scratch your back if (and only if) you scratch mine. These—i.e., veiled manipulation and transparent transaction—are certainly domestic options, but they don’t rise above political approaches to human interaction. They build dependencies and alliances, but not families and flourishing loves that are overflowing with meaning, able to combine confidence, awe, and humility. These fruits of love do not come from the same place as transaction and manipulation. They grow from a different vine.
Love interacts with meaning in a way that is radically different from politics or business, and love’s first demand is that we put childish things behind us and acknowledge this difference. That is where we start, if we want to really understand how words and meaning and reality are joined together.
Do not miscalculate: this love we are talking about is not some sentimental blather, not some screaming feeling, not some irresistible desire. These things are narcissistic forgeries at their worst; at their best, they are love’s distant cousins, twice removed by marriage.
Love makes other demands, we have said. And love’s first demand—a condition we have to accept if we want to understand meaning—is to admit that love is real, and that we are not very good at it. That’s what it means to grow up: it means to acknowledge that love is a demanding reality, and we have chosen the more expedient paths of manipulation and transaction, because these are more suited to our skillset and desired outcomes.
If that is something we are willing to acknowledge, we might, even now, have a shot at understanding meaning and redeeming some of the carnage of this last, dim, weird battle of the West.
Notes George Orwell. “Politics and the English Language,” in Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, eds., The Collected Essays, Journalism, & Letters of George Orwell: In Front of Your Nose, 1945-50 (Boston: Nonpareil Books, 2000), Volume 4:136.