I have been reading Fear: Trump in the White House, by Bob Woodward. I’m about half way through it, but I’ve already noticed something that will change the way I choose my words about politics from now on.
As President Trump brings on his cabinet and advisors, he seeks out many military figures who disagreed vehemently with the previous president. Mr. Woodward reports some of their presentations to the president, including their descriptions of what they felt were the mistakes of the previous administration.
To my surprise, their arguments sounded a lot more reasonable to me than they had in the past. I was able to see the logic in their arguments, even when I didn’t agree. This confused me – had I been so poor a listener? I went back a couple of chapters and began reading again.
It finally dawned on me what was different. Mr. Woodward reported the advisors’ points of view in very dispassionate language. There were almost no adjectives or adverbs, and no editorial comments whatsoever. It was just the unadorned chain of logic.
When I heard the same arguments in the past, they had always come in highly charged language. For example, I’d ask someone for their opinion on Mr. Obama’s Middle East policies, and the answer would begin with “Obama! He hates Israel!” or something similar – something that would immediately set me on the defensive. I didn’t – and don’t – think President Obama “hates Israel.” But when someone arguing against the Iran deal led with a bunch of statements like that, my heart would shut down. It would be very difficult to listen to anything else they said, however logical.
This has caused me to reflect on my own language. If such statements made it impossible for me to hear what someone else was saying, then what about the times I lead with my opinions of President Trump? In fact, until this post, I have had a tendency to avoid the title “President Trump” because I have such revulsion for him. Now, I will use the title – he is the President of the United States – and I will try to editorialize less about his person as I talk about his policies.
It is reasonable to expect a Trump voter to go onto the defensive when I open an argument with my emotional opinions about the man’s character. It’s not that my opinions about policy have changed – not at all! – I loathe most of his policies – but when I adorn my arguments with insulting nicknames and wild speculation about his motives, I close the ears of anyone I might want to persuade.
I am fond of saying that “words create worlds,” pointing to the first chapter of Genesis. Words can also build or burn bridges. Words are how we connect to other human beings. Perhaps one thing we need to do, if we are going to heal this divided country, is to speak less in passionate editorial prose and more in language that actually communicates facts.
I know that there are other problems in our speech in America right now: the whole issue of what is real, what is true, what can be known seems to be up for grabs. That’s a very serious matter, and I doubt there is much I alone can do to shift it. But on this little thing, to quit the namecalling, to quit ascribing motive, that’s something I can do, and I believe it could make a difference in my communication with others.