Columns, Opinions

Jacobs ’18: Empty language poisons political discourse

Staff Columnist
Friday, April 14, 2017

Political discourse has a language problem. Though it’s easier than ever to share ideas and engage in conversation, almost any prolonged discussion about national or global issues will involve some semantic ambiguity and misunderstanding. This is a result of both the newfound ease of sharing language on the Internet and our general affinity for using morally-charged words that we don’t truly understand.

For example, I was recently discussing the merits and weaknesses of consumer capitalism with a friend who was utterly bent on “smashing capitalism” and its reign of tyranny. It took about 20 minutes of debate before we realized that we were basing our arguments on entirely different notions of capitalism. My friend was not using capitalism as a term to describe free markets and the private ownership of productive capital — as I was — but instead to encompass historical injustices and the privileging of certain groups. As soon as we recognized this discrepancy, we were able to find common ground on the important part: the actual policies and worldviews that shape lived experiences.

The entire basis of our dispute was centered on our respective failures to articulate exactly what we meant by capitalism. And though we were ultimately able to push through our conversation and come to a sort of agreement, this was possible only by chance — and a mutual desire to procrastinate and try the bruschetta in the Ivy Room.

In another scenario, we may have well abandoned the conversation altogether, each of us leaving the interaction believing that the other was either misguided or stupefyingly naive. This is the danger of masking our arguments under the banner of complex political and social ideas. If we had simply stated our beliefs about the free market on the one hand, and the moral failures of a Western economic system that relied heavily on exploitation on the other, we may have circumvented disagreement altogether.

This issue is particularly pernicious today. The advent of the Internet and social media allows us to converse with one another on an unprecedented scale and easily circulate complicated, academic terms like “cultural appropriation,” “white privilege” and “Western imperialism.” Moreover, greater access to digital academic literature seems to have allowed intellectual political language to funnel parts of its thesaurus into the vernacular.

But these words — phrases like “capitalism,” “imperialism,” “neo-colonialism” and “privilege” — often mean entirely different things to different people. Moreover, these phrases are often understood to encapsulate specific political convictions, when in reality they are far more nuanced than people often believe.

Does being a proponent of capitalism require that one oppose social services and welfare? Does neo-colonialism describe physical meddling in other countries, or is it capacious enough a term to include international aid and cultural influence? There are no universal answers to these questions, and so their overuse and oversimplification undermines the vigor and sincerity of political debate.

Beyond encouraging political polarization and neutering public discourse, this trend has induced political apathy by distancing people from tangible issues, allowing them to camouflage in the comforting shade of intellectual language and jargon without any clear grasp of the arguments behind the words.

Furthermore, these words are too often used as invectives to discredit opposition because of the emotional and moral value they are seen to possess. Much of political language has become moralized in a way that muddies our arguments and the coherence of our discussions. They are often no more substantive than a vapid contention that someone is either “good” or “bad.”

If someone is dubbed a “neo-liberal,” for example, this is too often a synonym for having condemnable views about Western intervention. Or if someone else claims that they want to fight against “statism,” this only indicates that they disagree with people who are keen on a large government. In either case, words like “statist” and “neo-liberal” serve as a cheap replacement for an actual, active criticism or argument.

These tendencies have had a pernicious effect on public discourse and genuine political debate. We are removed from the possibility of engaging with one another in a thoughtful way because we talk past each other with imprecise language and the use of complex, loaded and often empty words. This is truly a pity.

That is not, of course, to say that these words do not have an important function. They can be entirely helpful if they are coupled with a mutual understanding of what they mean and how they are being employed.

I’m an optimist when it comes to political discourse. I believe that when all the facts are laid out, the arguments are properly constructed and the words are defined, people will generally be able to reach some sort of common ground. It is essential to use precise language and abandon buzzwords when discussing politics, because doing so can help us reach greater mutual understanding, if not agreement. As political polarization continues to undermine the strength of public discourse, a bit more thought about the catch-all political words we use could go a long way. I think our classes, communities, public spaces and democracy would be better for it.

Julian Jacobs ’18 can be reached Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

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  1. Ron Ruggieri says:

    Exactly what is meant by ” capitalism “, ” exploitation ” , ” oppression ” , ” imperialism ” , and even ” war crimes ” is very well articulated by the World Socialist Web Site presently refuting the BIG LIE about Assad using poison gas in Syria. It rivals ” Remember the Maine! ” as a War Party rant.
    Once WE have clarity of definition the question becomes : ” Whose side are you on, the oppressor or the oppressed ?

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