Language can calibrate a nation’s moral compass

From Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King to Donald Trump, America offers examples – good and bad – of the power of language

Language is a powerful tool for shaping a society’s values. The manner in which a leader uses language can reset the moral compass of a nation. And it can influence, for better or worse, the behaviour of its citizenry.

While public discourse in Canada isn’t perfect, it’s reasonably civil. Canadian politicians, though sometimes outspoken and critical of opponents – particularly during election campaigns – generally maintain a degree of civility. Canadians have yet to endure the extremely toxic socio-political discourse that presently characterizes civic dialogue in the United States.

The lack of civility to the south is not new. Historians who study these things point to Newt Gingrich, arguing that he ushered in an era of polarization and partisanship that began to undermine civility in the political arena.

It seems that under Donald Trump, civility has reached an all-time low. During his campaign for the presidency, Trump set a blatantly disrespectful tone. His speech was frequently inflammatory. As president, he continues to employ the same type of rhetoric liberally sprinkled with ‘alternative facts,’ particularly when addressing his base.

The result has been malicious behaviour and acts of violence on the part of some Americans. Actions such as marching in support of white nationalism in Charlottesville, Va., the mailing of pipe bombs to Democrats, and the murder of 11 Jews while worshipping in a synagogue must be recognized for what they are: manifestations of fear and hatred emboldened by the president’s rhetoric.

To excuse the latter two incidents as random expressions of deranged individuals reflects a failure of will to face the truth. Words matter and leaders know it.

The history of conflict in modern times certainly bears this out. The global community is no stranger to the terrible consequences of demeaning and dehumanizing language as it filters from the top down into the public imagination.

The brainwashing propaganda of Nazi Germany painted Jews as an infestation of rats; six million Jewish men, women and children lost their lives in extermination camps. In Rwanda, extremist Hutu propaganda broadcast over radio compared the Tutsis to cockroaches; 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days.

The opposite also holds true.

Language can call forth the best in nations and from its citizens. It can strengthen the national resolve for difficult tasks at hand. Winston Churchill’s stirring “We will fight them on the beaches” speech, for example, breathed new energy into the British campaign against Nazi Germany.

Two speeches from American history, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech, demonstrate the role that language can play in inspiring and paving the road towards a more just and inclusive society.

Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address after one of the most brutal battles of the American Civil War. The north was war-weary and its support for the war was waning. Lincoln proposed a radical interpretation of the founding of the nation: the nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” In doing so, he redefined the scope of the war. The war was bigger than the fight to preserve the union; it was a war for the principle of human equality.

Lincoln delivered his speech on Nov. 19, 1863. One hundred years later, on Aug. 28, 1963, King addressed an estimated 250,000 people at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He directed his speech to America, to a country that had failed to live up to the democratic principles of its founders. But I Have A Dream rippled around the world. It especially resonated with and empowered those who were oppressed.

King’s speech bespoke, and still does, the common dream of people of goodwill that regardless of nationality, race or creed, people will live in harmony. King referred to “white men and black men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.” These were the groups at odds in the America of his time. While the list may not differ significantly today, one can imagine King amending it to include “Christians and Muslims, citizens and migrants.”

In the examples above, language played a major part in recalibrating the moral compass and tilted nations towards good or evil. Language can divide or unite society; build up or tear down; construct bridges or walls.

Make no mistake about it, language is not neutral. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous and dangerous.

Troy Media columnist Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.


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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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