Two unacceptable candidates for presidential office will be on the main-party ballots in a just a day or so. A quick look at how the two of them speak clarifies the troubling nature of Mr. Trump’s views, but also why Mrs. Clinton’s history of lying is an even more severe abuse that undermines authentic communication itself.
The Purposes and Functions of Language
Two basic functions of language are discussing ideas and speaking to one another.
This first purpose, the formal use of language is the language of law, of documents like the Constitution, of logic, of philosophy and academics. It uses specific vocabulary and concepts in an effort to name truths such that we can all understand them and converse about them. The second purpose is basic interpersonal communication and often uses the casual register. It is more colloquial, relying on shared understandings and implications. The vocabulary is much smaller and is non-specific. These two overlap of course, especially in high level conversation such as debates. (I draw these two basic categories: formal and casual, from the five registers discussed in Ruby K. Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty.)
Trump’s Triumphs and Tribulations from Casual Speech
A point of distinction for Mr. Trump is his use the casual register, even in debates. He calls things “tremendous” and “great” or “messes” and “disasters” without further specification and expects to be understood. Meanwhile, the moderator, his opponent, and much of his audience are left with their jaws hanging wondering why he failed to answer the question. He exemplifies the non-specific language of the casual register which functions on shared understandings and implications.
Trump’s casual speech opens him to easy lampooning in the media, but is has also allowed him to connect with a deep well of untapped support from the working class. When asked if he would accept the results of the election in the third debate, Mr. Trump replied that “I’ll keep you in suspense,” which is a vague answer intended to tap into a shared understanding that the election process is somewhat suspect. All he likely meant is that he might sue, as Al Gore did in 2000, and that he might otherwise sulk in his penthouse.
But his comment met with media consternation and uproar about undermining the foundations of our democracy which rest on the peaceful transfer of power. Many commentators construed Trump’s comment as seditious because they do not share the implication that his speech relied upon. To them, “accepting election results,” means accepting the foundations of the rule of law and legal proceedings that govern America. The two assumptions undergirding the question missed each other and led to miscommunication, a danger often present in casual speech. This line bothered the media, but was likely less problematic than many assumed.
Mr. Trump’s Unrespectable Views
Unfortunately, many of Trump’s casual, off-hand remarks are actually as problematic as left-leaning writers say they are because of the the shared understandings that he relies upon do tend to be discriminatory and disrespectful. Mr. Trump’s comments on women are a uncontroversial example
Leaving aside his outrageous 2005 recording, in August 2015 Trump dismissed journalist Megyn Kelly, wondering aloud whether she had “blood coming out of her wherever.” The reference to her menstruating accessed the stereotype that due to the hormones accompanying this bodily process, women are not rational during it. In so speaking, Mr. Trump claims power to dismiss Ms. Kelly’s comments as potentially non-rational. Because menstruation is private, this logically extends to all women being dismissable all the times. Trump’s comments about a judge of Hispanic descent being unable to try an immigration case fairly functioned similarly, as did his comments about imposing a religious test for people coming into America.
Mr. Trump’s temper and reliance on harmful stereotypes pervade his campaign and leaves us with a candidate who holds severely problematic views against a majority of Americans (since non-whites and females together constitute a majority of citizens), attributes which are hardly fitting for someone who is campaigning to lead all these different groups.
Clinton Promulgates Lies
In contrast to Mr. Trump’s blatant sexism and racism, Hillary Clinton appears to occupy a moral high ground. She has command of the formal register, that specific speech we use to explain reality, and she trounced Mr. Trump in debate. But Mrs. Clinton abuses language by unaccountable lying and in doing so, she turns formal speech into propaganda, undermining the end of truthful communication.
Mrs. Clinton avoids uncomfortable facts and asserts that her good intentions make up for misdeeds. In the third debate, the moderator, Chris Wallace, asked her about conflicts of interest between her political role as Secretary of State and her non-profit, the Clinton Foundation. He said, “e-mails show that donors got special access to you, those seeking grants for Haiti relief separately from non-donors and some of those donors got contracts, government contracts, taxpayer money.” The confirmation of doling out favors, appointments and contracts to donors amounts to accepting bribes, nepotism, basic corruption and abuse of office.
Despite the gravity of the charges, Mrs. Clinton’s response dodged the question of legality and ethics by glossing over the facts. She said, “Well, everything I did as secretary of state was in furtherance of our country’s interests and our values.” This statement is shocking in that she does not deny any of the charges, but rather justifies the misuse of her position and funds because doing so in the interest of “our country.” She then proceeded to enumerate the great deeds of the Clinton Foundation.
Unfortunately, using illegal and corrupt means even in the name of “a good cause,” is still illegal and corrupt. Law enforcement held Richard Nixon to account for his illegal tactics, honorable though he surely would have said they were. Actions that are illegal and unethical are still illegal and unethical even if they aim at a good end. This is why laws guide societies: lawmakers themselves are meant to be subject to the laws, not above them.
Further, Mrs. Clinton has been caught in clear-cut cases of obstruction of justice. She illegally used a private email server for confidential information and deleted over 30,000 emails that were congressionally subpoenaed before handing over the computers involved. She similarly hid evidence regarding a staff member’s suicide in a 1994 investigation during her husband’s administration. The WikiLeaks revelations of the email content confirms that all the suspicions of corruptions were indeed carried out.
Oddly, leading news outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN turn a blind or lenient eye on Mrs. Clinton’s illegal activities. These facts tend to be met with little interest, though they pose major threats to the neutral role of the media in our public life.
Propaganda, Language as Power
That Mrs. Clinton’s lies seem so acceptable as to appear unnoteworthy is precisely the problem. Her propaganda is working as she effectively sets the tone of the discourse. The twentieth century philosopher Joseph Pieper addressed the danger of this type of speech in his long essay, “Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power.” He says that when leaders lie:
“Instead of genuine communication, there will exist something for which domination is too benign a term…On one side there will be a sham authority, unsupported by any intellectual superiority, and on the other side a state of dependency” (30).
Communication exists to bring two parties together by hearing truth; it loses this function when it is used to deceive. In lying, the deceiver illegitimately appropriates power over the listener, claiming the ability to set the reality of the listener, a power which does not properly belong to anyone. The listener, without recourse to external verification, becomes an instrument in the hand of the deceiver. The listener will either be left in a state of disconnected mistrust or will becomes dependent on the deceiver’s account of reality, which he or she can adjust in order to direct the listener to any end whatever.
Mrs. Clinton’s lies, cover-ups and corruption undermine language and make it a tool of the dishonest use power. Hillary Clinton’s level of lying is the dysfunction pattern of an abusive, controlling relationship writ large. She is the abusive husband altering the grip on reality of the dependent wife that our citizens represent.
There is No Lesser of Intrinsic Evils
In just a few days, it will be time to vote for two main-party candidates who are severely unfit for the office, either for holding disrespectful views of most citizens or for corruption and deception. Whoever wins, it belongs to we the citizens to care more about truth and about others and to work to develop better, more accountable, more honest representatives no matter how difficult that struggle may be.