The Nazification of Our Language

by Derrick G. Jeter

Ralph Waldo Emerson, that great American maven of the English tongue, wrote “We infer the spirit of the nation in great measure from the language.” [1] If this is true, and I believe it is, what could one infer as to the spirit of America from the language currently circulating in our culture, particularly in our political culture? Name calling and lambasting have had a long, even if a dubious reputation in political discourse (see my article, “You, Sir, Are a Dullard”). Nevertheless, there is something unusually repugnant about the language used today—it’s beyond hyperbolic; it’s foolish and dangerous.

We have entered a time in which our language has become—for lack of a better word—Nazified. In debate, it is no longer enough to point out where our opponents are in error, we must now destroy them as if they were our enemy. Something compels us to marginalize, demonize, and dehumanize our opponents. And the method we’ve chosen to accomplish this ignoble task is to dredge up some of the vilest characters whose slime we’re still trying to remove from humanity. So, George W. Bush and Barak Obama are both called or depicted as the reincarnation of Hitler. Meg Whitman, the 2010 Republican candidate for governor of California, has been compared to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels by Jerry Brown, her Democratic opponent. And Arizona’s new immigration law has been compared to the law that sent Japanese-Americans to internment camps.

George Orwell argued that “the decline of language must ultimately have political and economic causes.” [2] In his own day, and this is certainly true in ours, Orwell observed, “The present political chaos is connected with the decay of language. . . . Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give appearance of solidity to pure wind.” [3] Our language is so reprehensible, Orwell concluded, because our thoughts are so foolish.

It is easy to simply call Nazified language silly, unimaginative, unattractive, boring and boorish, and ignorant—and so it is. But this misses the point because it misses the danger of using such language, which, ultimately, diminishes history. To put it more bluntly: it turns history into a lie—and lies kill history. To call someone Hitler or Stalin tells us virtually nothing about the person on the receiving end of such a nasty moniker. Neither Bush nor Obama, nor anyone else in American politics for that matter, is as evil as Hitler or Stalin. But neither does the invocation of a despicable character in debate tell us anything about the wickedness of these men. At best, such sloppy language minimizes the very real evil these men committed; and at worse it nullifies what these men did, for neither Bush nor Obama have murdered millions of their countrymen in order to gain or retain political power.

The Nazification of our political discourse is a great lie. Its the vomit that spews forth from small minded people with small ideas and small ambitions, who for the sake of a measly vote or to score some meaningless political point will distort history, diminish the makers of history—both the good and the bad—and destroy history’s memory. Enough! Disparaging an opponent’s character has no place in our political discourse, even disagreeable discourse. The American people deserve better. We should no longer put up with such foolish and dangerous language. Instead, we must demand that those who engage in public discourse apply a modicum of civility, which is, after all, an American virtue. Os Guinness wrote that civility is “a republican virtue that is a matter of principle and a habit of the heart. It is a style of public discourse shaped by respect for the humanity and dignity of individuals, as well as for truth and the common good—and . . . by the American constitutional tradition.” [4]

Is civility too much to ask of our political leaders and of those who desire to rise to those ranks? If so, then we need to find new political leaders and cast the others aside, judging them as no better than and just as uncivil as those other liars whose slime continues to stain our language.

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nominalist and Realist, “ in Essays and Lectures (New York: The Library of America, 1983), 578.

[2] George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in Essays, (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2002), 954.

[3] Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 966.

[4] Os Guinness, The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 151.