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9 November 2016

Time to reclaim language: words are more important than ever in the age of post-truth politics

In the post-factual days of President Donald Trump, Twitter reminds me that words must have meaning. It is time for us to attach actions to those words.

By Joanna Walsh

I get much of my first-call news from Twitter – not through the formal words of papers or broadcasts, but conveyed indirectly via the close whisper of conversation, the sideswipes of quotes and quips; sometimes context-less information-giving; passionate declarations to the void that hope to find some emotional end-user; occasional outbursts mitigated by the small interpersonal negotiations of kindnesses and unkindnesses.

Twitter is never a place for dispassionate argument, by which I mean that it is a place that privileges feeling, of whatever kind.

Twitter has a reputation for outrage, but I’ve found it a polite place. Most of the fair number of people I follow or am followed by seem reluctant to step on each other’s toes and are generous in taking account of each other’s experiences. It is a place where arguments are often conducted hesitantly, as among friends who would rather retain an emotional connection than prove their point. 

I woke up to a post-election world in which Twitter’s feelings wanted comforting. It asked for small act of kindness: recommendations for and of books, flowers, music and, yes, kittens. 

Comfort words should not be despised. These words of interpersonal feeling have value in themselves. (With how many black Americans was I exchanging words before Twitter?)

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What people today have tweeted most often is that they are speechless. And, yes, it is always hard to speak new versions of what has already been said, of what people employed to write knowledgeably and well about politics have said so clearly and to such little effect (one of Trump’s few press endorsements was from the newspaper of the Klu Klux Klan). I will not repeat them.

Additionally, it is difficult to continue to see the value of words after a campaign during which repeated accusations of sexual assault had little effect on a candidate’s popularity, and in which his own words – from downright lies to dismissals of some of his other words, clearly linked to deeds, as mere “locker-room” talk  are in freefall from his actions. Since Brexit, we have been living in politics’ “post-factual” age in which acts and words have drawn apart.

It is clear we need to respond with more than words here: we need to act. But “action without a name, a ‘who’ attached to it”, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in The Human Condition, “is meaningless”. She means that actions must be disclosed, admitted to, named, in order to be truly effective. In taking action, we need now not only to hold onto words but to renew the connections of language.

Arendt advises us to “appear in public in order to achieve full reality”. “In politics,” she writes, “personality is anything but a private affair… we must change our views and forsake our habit of equating personal with subjective, objective with factual or impersonal.” She might as well have been describing Twitter, whose small-scale, personal exchanges – often taken as an echo chamber of empty or self-reflexive words – in fact belong to the public sphere and, as such, have political implications and political potential.

So let us take action, but let us also put names to our actions. A “name” is more than a word, or why would there be a separate word for it? A name is less negotiable: it is a word tied more tightly to an instance, to something specific: it links acts to responsibility, drawing the political and the personal publicly together.

Let’s begin to take names seriously. Let’s reattach our actions to our words, and our words to our actions like jump-leads, like ECG leads that will put new heart into them. Let’s jumpstart the connections between what we say and what we do. Let us use words more responsibly, let us demand accountability. Let’s start by accounting for ourselves.