Peterson: Precision of language is key to meaningful discussion

Ryan Peterson

I invested my Saturday considering what issues needed the most attention. At first my thoughts drifted from Washington to Wall Street, but they are only symptoms of a greater problem. Issues arise out of us and our communication, this is the problem we need to address.

Our language and behavior has fallen in a bad way. Communication and interaction is critical, it can either create new problems or cure old ones. Currently we use a social language that polarizes problems and prevents us from breaking complex issues down into simple parts. As students we’re terrible about using social language; for an example, tune into what you hear between class. You’ll see what I mean.

You’ll hear a lot of ambiguous conversation; euphemisms such as “like,” “you know” and “totally.” Statements without clear considered thoughts. We use them because they’re easy and they free us from clarifying what it’s “like” or what it is that “you know.” Our conversations rarely contain any clear, concise language. What’s more frequent are abstractions, indirections and litotes.

Abstraction prevents direct discussion. Words like democracy and freedom are abstractions, we take their definition for granted. We use them without clarifying our definition, making them easy to apply as justification for any anything. You never have to confront another person and to defend your views, all you have to do is call “freedom,” and any who oppose are anti-freedom. Professors and students alike evade discussion by using obscured terminology.

Indirections generalize subjects of debate. We discuss objects without saying about what or who we’re talking, without considering the parts. “The Democrats” just want to raise taxes, and those “Tea Partiers” are fascists. Complex issues and groups are oversimplified, and as a result we destroy individuals and issues. We can’t defend or debate anything because we don’t know what we’re discussing. We don’t consider all the possible views because we only see two.

Litotes are nice. Their use allows us to avoid making declarations. It’s “not like I don’t agree,” “I wouldn’t not say that” and “it was determined by Republicans.” The use of the negative, double negative and passive voice all free us from standing for or against anything. It’s as though we’d like to say, “this isn’t my idea, and I’m not responsible it.”

Without responsibility, you can make any claim with impunity. You can’t actually prove anything right or wrong. The loss of clarity tyrannizes us. Politicians slip through vague terms and unclaimed statements, and we propagate it. We give social media, propaganda and ads their power by our inability to organize our own thoughts.

Our ambiguous language has created ambiguous thoughts, and now we lack the language to fasten reality. We rally, but we don’t discuss. We argue, but we don’t use facts. To quote George W. Bush, “Either you’re with us, either you love freedom, or you’re with the enemy.” Sounds good and generates social energy, but it has no meaning and no power without clarity.

Start talking, and stop using ambiguous terms such as Democracy, Freedom, Tyranny, Socialism and Fascism. Stop herding around rallies and simply start talking as individuals. The only real change you can create is at a local level. So start trying to change Iowa State.

If you can change Iowa State, you can change the course of ISU students, and the students are the foundations for the future. If you debate with a single individual using clarity and precision, you’ve acted politically. You’ve helped inform their views, and that has more power than holding a sign. Change among individuals is exponential. It overturns propaganda and allows conversation to cure the issues. It’s slow, but true change is slow. We’ve suffered a disintegration for a decade, and it’ll take a decade to recover.

Rallies and marches have a place, but they tend to function more socially than politically. They can create change, but only by polarizing and swinging the pendulum. They act in the flow of euphemisms and propel the problem. Break the groups into individuals, persuade each other and act politically. Or, act socially and create more tyranny with another mob.

This weekend I thought critically as an individual. It was laborious, but it was worth it. Now you and I both know my views, and right or wrong, we can discuss them. We can’t fix anything by forming into a rally, but maybe we can get a few people to read our words, maybe we can generate a few individuals to respond and take responsibility for their words. I hope you invested some of your weekend in thought, and if you did, we want to hear what you have to say. Iowa State has heard my opinion, now let them hear yours.