What’s With Our Language?
By Jean Hastings Ardell
A few weeks ago a guest column “What’s in a Life?” appeared in this newspaper. In it I discussed Black Lives Matter (BLM) — both the organization and the movement — a subject of spirited debate these days. But I didn’t get very far into the allotted 800 words before realizing that one of the underlying themes was our use of the English language. As I later read in her opposing column, “Defending the Soul of America,” Jennifer Welsh Zeiter wrote that “BLM is the dangerous face of well-funded socialist/communist web organizations intent on overthrowing American society, replacing it with socialism, or communism.” Strong stuff, and I can tell you that many of us who support BLM simply want social justice for all Americans. Zeiter also called the three women who founded the BLM Global Network Foundation “avowed trained Marxists.” Which is accurate. I got interested in the term “Marxist,” researched it, and still didn’t quite grasp what it is. I read up on Karl Marx, but his terminology was dense and resisted this reader’s understanding. I emailed a friend, a retired professor of history, with my problem. “Well, lots of luck with this,” he responded. “Marxism is terribly convoluted and means different things to different ‘Marxists.’”
Such trouble with terminology is not a new phenomenon. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell lamented the decline of political discourse and the moral fallout that can ensue. He criticized the practice of all political orthodoxies, from Conservatives to Anarchists, to pile on ideological buzz words in their attempts to persuade public opinion.
If you, too, despair at the decline of the language and the plethora of new terms we use in our public discourse please join the club. If ever there was a time in Laguna’s history when our very words too often undermine the peaceable nature of our beach town, it’s now. Just recently Peggy Wolff, the president of the Laguna Beach Unified School District’s Board of Education, announced she will not run for reelection due to “bullying.” In a letter to this paper, Wolff explained, “I will not miss… the vitriol and meanness of a small but vocal segment of our local population.”
Wolff is not the first person to give up on serving in the public sphere, but it doesn’t bode well for our community. Words matter.
Meanwhile a coalition of alumni, students, faculty, and parents of our school district is calling upon policy makers to stand up for “anti-racism,” another term currently much in the news – and again, there is some confusion as to what exactly it means. (Hence best-sellers like Robin DiAngelo’s and M. E. Dyson’s “White Fragility” and Ibram X. Kendi’s “How To Be An Anti-Racist.”) In the coalition’s Aug. 1 letter to the LBUSD Board, it reads, “As LBUSD students, we all witnessed racial slurs, microaggressions, and more that often went unnoticed, unreported, and/or unpunished.”
I find it encouraging that our teenagers are willing to dig into this issue and find a better way. I only wish some of the adults in town could find their way to more civil discourse. Not only Councilmember Peter Blake, whose verbal assaults on those with whom he disagrees are well-known, but also others on the council, who, despite the passage of a policy supporting rules of decorum and civility last September, shy from enforcing it. We can and should do better in our choice of words when we engage with one another. And it’s fitting and proper to call others to account when they refuse to be civil.
The issue of language and how we use it is just one of the issues that have prompted me to write about what’s going on in our town. By way of further introduction I guess you’d not be surprised to learn that I majored in English, at U.C. Irvine.
As for the title of this column, I test out left of center politically and religiously. I changed my registration from Republican to Democrat many years ago. (Okay, back in the late 1960s, I had a brief flirtation with the Peace & Freedom party.). I serve as elder at a progressive Presbyterian church that welcomes LGBTQs. Among my friends are socialists and conservatives, Republican politicians and evangelical pastors. We’re mostly able to good-naturedly talk politics and religion. I was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Queens, went to school in Manhattan, and frequented Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Which means I spent a lot of time riding the subway throughout New York City, where I probably learned as much about the human condition in all its diversity as I did in school. People, and what they say and do, continue to compel me to write.
Jean is a Laguna Beach resident and freelance writer. Find her work at jeanardell.com.