Yesterday I thrice commented on things I learned in two college courses in linguistics before I blurted to my friend and colleague Mischelle, “They may have been the most useful classes I ever took.” Together with Latin and English, these linguistics courses taught me ways of understanding the world through the use of language. My personal grammar and usage demons aside, I rely on language and images to communicate my thinking and thus understand it myself.
Perhaps it is my preference for visual learning over auditory learning that made these linguistics courses so valuable to me — I literally needed them. Elsewhere I have written about my use of images to remember things from psychological models to items on a shopping list, but it is linguistics that brings me to political discourse.
From a recent podcast I learned of the 2008 win by Deven Cooper and Dayvon Love of the national debate championship. Their story reminded me of how much I rely on semantics and pragmatics in listening. They won the championship on the force of their arguments, not on the assigned topics for which Harvard, Yale, Northwestern and other debaters had devoted weeks of research, but on the premise of debate competitions themselves in a highly racialized system of exclusion in the world of debate. Their arguments were not anti-intellectual, but the opposite. They used highly intellectual arguments and counter-arguments to challenge the very context of discourse.
It occurs to me that one of the ways we have been engaging in an anti-intellectual spirit prominent in much of US politics is the insertion of the word just before important conditions like semantics, as in “It is just semantics.” However, it is through semantics that we consider the meanings of what is being said. Semantics are critical to our understanding what candidates are saying and if their utterances are true. Pragmatics considers the context in which the utterances occur.
So I plan to listen with attention to the consequences of Mr. Trump’s response to a question yesterday about abortion in which he stated and confirmed that he would support the punishment of women who elected to terminate a pregnancy should abortions for some reason no longer be legal in the US. His statements were made in the context of public questioning of his positions on the subject. Later, his communication team, in the context of their daily clean-up process following his statements, “clarified” that his position is that the abortion provider, not the woman, would be subject to punishment.
In this matter, I find that we continue to see that Mr. Trump’s relationship to truth is tenuous. His devaluing of women’s lives is consistent. His readiness to govern is extremely limited. His candidacy is dangerous.