In Essays & Poems, Faculty Voices

Words define, or destroy, our country’s democracy

Dennis Patrick Slattery, For the Express-News, Jan. 15, 2022

Some 30 years ago I developed a habit of rising early to write in my journal. I sit quietly after lighting a candle and invite from yesterday what wished to be remembered. The language I deploy to record yesterday’s events leads me into what significance they had and how it may shape my life today.

On a national level, we recently remembered a historical event, recorded as it unfolded: the Jan. 6 insurrection. The unprecedented invasion grew out of a grievance that was unmoored from any historical facts — that the election was somehow stolen and that only a violent response could right such a fantasized wrong. Words alone, absent any historical referents, provoked a vicious violation of the Constitution’s instructions for the peaceful transfer of power.

Words were also used by competing factions to shape what we saw. We were exposed to a fiction on one hand, and on the other hand to the facts recorded by many news outlets. The insurrection revealed an invasion on the written document that defines us as a nation. Carefully worded by the Founding Fathers, but still open to interpretation, the Constitution expresses a method of governing that installs the will of the people in their most prominent position: the center of an experiment in democracy.

We are thus a nation founded by words that we agreed to as a people to further what democracy is and can be. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States from France in 1831 at 25 to observe this experiment, he noted the rights of the people were linked to virtue. “The idea of rights is nothing but the conception of virtue applied to the world of politics,” Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America.”

And while he praised the new nation for linking virtue to rights, he admitted, “nothing is harder than freedom’s apprenticeship. The same is not true of despotism” which has a sinister intention; it “often presents itself as the repairer of all the ills suffered, the support of just rights, defender of the oppressed, and founder of order.”

His observation intimates that democracy will always be in jeopardy of being undermined by words that promise the opposite of their actions. Democracy, nested in the language of the Constitution, is always vulnerable to an invasion by hordes of words that disguise insidious intentions. Words conveying “a stolen election,” and promoted by nothing more than a desire for power, led to the Jan. 6 attack, reinforced by an army of laws to suppress voting. Yet each citizen’s vote is an expression of the larger language of the people’s will.

The rights of the governed face accelerated erosion today by words that shape laws to steal the voice of citizens. Words have the power to orient or disorient us, to shape our thoughts and behavior, as well as distort our perceptions and beliefs.

In “On Tyranny,” Timothy Snyder explores the power of words in the section “Be kind to our language.” He encourages us to read more and watch news outlets less; avoid using clichés that deaden ideas and fresh thinking; and develop our own way of speaking to avoid the sinkholes of media-speak in order “to define the shape and significance of events.” He promotes shared conversation over angry confrontation because it encourages a more critical attitude toward what we hear.

Democracy flourishes when challenged; it falters when our words atrophy into stock responses.

Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D., is distinguished professor emeritus in mythology at Pacifica Graduate Institute and a resident of New Braunfels

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