Vail Daily column: Be leery of loaded language | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Be leery of loaded language

Jack Van Ens

“Great!”

Does this word grate on your nerves when presidential campaigners use it? Or, does “great” invigorate your spirit, building pride in the U.S.?

“Great” connects with some voters but repels others. A buzz word, “great” either turns-on or turns-off voters, depending on its political spin.

“They treat this loaded word as if it were a piece of glass to look at,” warns Professor Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. She teaches medical students how to write clearly at the University of California, Berkley. “Rather than glancing at what’s ‘great,’” advises McEntyre, “try looking through it, like a glassblower who peers into molten liquid to check if foreign particles blur glass.”

Like a piece of cloudy glass, a loaded word such as “great” distorts our speech. In this year’s presidential campaign, we “see a level of bluster in American politics unparalleled since the (Andrew) Jacksonian excesses of the 19th century—proclaiming one’s own power and reveling on others’ weakness. The unrealistic promises have been matched by crude displays of bravado and disdain for ‘losers,’” writes Andy Couch, executive editor of Christianity Today magazine (May 2016, p. 24).

Be alert to how politicians skew words to fit their bias. Use discernment, like a verbal archeologist who digs under words to discover their meanings. Hone judgment. Perceive how words function. “Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, acquire insight,” (Proverbs 4:7).

Donald Trump builds his presidential campaign on the slogan, “Make America Great Again.” He pictures Uncle Sam flexing muscle to get his way. Enemies quiver and flee before such force. The Donald verbally struts, urging voters to forsake wimpy foreign policy.

Hillary Clinton spins our nation’s greatness, too, but it’s compromised or lost.

After a late February South Carolina primary win, Clinton tore into Trump about making America great again. “Despite what you hear, we don’t need America to be great again,” asserted Clinton. “America has never stopped being great. But we do need to make America whole again. Instead of building walls, we need to tear down boundaries.”

Both Clinton and Trump blow trumpets for either making or keeping our country great. Trump wants to repair what’s broken; Clinton opts to build on present strengths.

Both use the same word “great” for rhetorical affect and, in the process, drain it of precise meaning. Calls to national greatness sound shapeless. Voters fill in blanks, letting their political biases define what’s “great.”

Some patriotic heroes practiced verbal promiscuity, bedding words to fit their political agendas. Historian William Manchester tells how Douglas McArthur, supreme commander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific Ocean during World War II, tinkered with words until they conformed to his way of thinking.

Manchester regards McArthur as “the best of men and the worst of men.” A fearless combatant, he primed before fifteen-foot mirrors before taking center stage. This general developed an authoritative speaking style, referring to himself in the third person, as if he acquired greatness from the Greek gods on Mount Olympus. The general announced, “MacArthur leaves his barracks now for the front lines.”

“His belief in an Episcopal, merciful God was genuine,” writes Manchester, “yet he seemed to worship only at the altar of himself. He never went to church, but he read the Bible every day and regarded himself as one of the world’s two great defenders of Christendom. (The other was the pope)” (“American Caesar: Douglas McArthur, 1880-1964”).

MacArthur fired off loaded language. “It is an equalitarian fiction,” asserts Manchester, “that the great are modest.” Some dress-up greatness, elevating a haughty spirit. Others show humility.

Speak candidly. Sound charitable to those who differ. Don’t weigh down language with destructive verbal baggage that slights and scolds. Clarify rather than to dodge what’s true.

Like smiling preachers and used-car salesmen, political campaigners use loaded language to rouse voters. They say whatever it takes to win.

Appealing to our patriotism, these politicians claim they are great, what they say is great, and if voters agree with this personal identity, then our nation will be great (again). Such grandiose claims win over voters who mentally nap.

Be wary of loaded language that appeals to a longing for personal and national greatness. It’s delusional. Weigh words, instead.

Hug language that challenges simple answers, breaks open new insight, uplifts hearts and expands awareness. Prune the word “great” of grandiose chatter and loud-mouth bantering.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.