In my line of work (writing marketing copy), I’m often asked not to use the word “luxury.” Why? Because so many profoundly cheap products have used the word as to render it meaningless. The same dismemberment of the language is happening in politics as well. Let’s let the great modern polemicist Christopher Hitchens lay it on the line:

It is cliché, not plagiarism, that is the problem with our stilted, room-temperature political discourse. It used to be that thinking people would say, with at least a shred of pride, that their own convictions would not shrink to fit on a label or on a bumper sticker. But now it seems that the more vapid and vacuous the logo, the more charm (or should that be “charisma”?) it exerts. Take “Yes We Can,” for example. It’s the sort of thing parents might chant encouragingly to a child slow on the potty-training uptake.
Pretty soon, we should be able to get electoral politics down to a basic newspeak that contains perhaps 10 keywords: Dream, Fear, Hope, New, People, We, Change, America, Future, Together. Fishing exclusively from this tiny and stagnant pool of stock expressions, it ought to be possible to drive all thinking people away from the arena and leave matters in the gnarled but capable hands of the professional wordsmiths and manipulators. In the new jargon, certain intelligible ideas would become inexpressible.

Are we becoming a people devoid of complexity doomed to an Idiocracy future? Are we losing our connection to ideas expressed not in vacant clichés but in profound depth? Or is Hitchens just a curmudgeonly elitist who wants political discourse to exist primarily for the over-educated and by the over-educated?

Words matter a lot. At their best, they can inspire monumental acts and change millions of minds. But they are also bluntly utilitarian, simple tools we use for most of our daily communication. Political discourse must walk the divide between language as art and language as hammer. Politicians are expected to raise us up while also detailing the 24-steps to social security solvency – and they get no more than a short speech or a catchy phrase in which to capture their full essence. The distillation process rarely creates a smooth result.

Political slogans like corporate taglines should never be considered the end-all, be-all of communication. If you buy Nike because you feel like just doing it, you’re an idiot. Likewise, any voter who chooses a candidate based on their slogans is already living in their own idiocracy. I have a little more faith than Hitchens that, beneath the gauze of banality, real discussions are happening – not everywhere and maybe not even by the majority, but by enough voters and enough politicians to keep the abuse of language from becoming an abuse of governance.

Still, Hitchens’ point should not go without consideration. We must be careful to remember a well-worded cliché is still a cliché. Inspirational speeches should inspire us to act for better causes not just inspire goosebumps.

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