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February 2, 2006

Democratic Rhetoric

Last night I was reading selections from Democracy in America
(some light before-bedtime reading) when I came across a chapter
entitled “Modification of the English Language.”  Being the
language nut that I am, I had to read the chapter even though it was
approaching 11:30 p.m.  The commentary I found in the chapter was
astute and absolutely true of American society, as so much of the
commentary in Democracy in America
is.  I imagine it will resound with those of you who find the
discourse of today’s politicians so incredibly inflated and intolerably
annoying, as I do.

De Tocqueville wrote, “Democratic nations are passionately addicted to
generic terms and abstract expressions because these modes of speech
enlarge thought and assist the operations of the mind by enabling it to
include many objects in a small compass [without having to specify
exactly what they mean].  […] 

“These abstract terms which abound in democratic languages, and which
are used on every occasion without attaching them to any particular
fact, enlarge and obscure the thoughts they are intended to convey;
they render the mode of speech more succinct and the idea contained in
it less clear.  But with regard to language, democratic nations
prefer obscurity to labor.

“I do not know indeed whether this loose style has not some secret
charm for those who speak and write among these nations. 
[…]  As they never know whether the idea they express today will
be appropriate to the new position they may occupy tomorrow, they
naturally acquire a liking for abstract terms.  An abstract term
is like a box with a false bottom; you may put in it what ideas you
please, and take them out again without being observed.”

Like, say, changing the justification for a war after the fact. 
Or calling for “sustainability,” such an over-used and all-encompassing
concept that the speaker need not have any greater intention than
supporting “clean” coal when employing the term.  It turns out
that today’s politicians are no different than yesterday’s; and not
just politicians–de Tocqueville was referring to the U.S. population
in general.  Pay attention to your friends and acquaintances the
next time you’re in a conversation.  How many specifics do they
give in their speech?  How many details?  Do you really know precisely their position, intentions, or thoughts on a subject?

I could go on with other observations by de Tocqueville that are
mind-boggling for their accuracy, but I won’t.  Suffice it to say
that the world, in many ways, hasn’t changed much in the last 200 years.

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