The critical distinction between words and language

With 2019 upon us, language is increasingly playing a role in the political chaos south of the border. U.S. President Donald Trump has called Central American asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border “invaders” and “terrorists,” has branded their efforts to be granted asylum a “crisis,” even though it’s not, and has floated the possibility of declaring a state of “emergency” in order to free up taxpayer dollars to fund the wall he long vowed the Mexicans were paying for.

Just last night, Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office, doubling down in a rarely-seen scripted speech on his case for a southern border wall. Once again, he suggested migrants were terrorists, called the situation a “crisis of the heart, and a crisis of the soul,” and described the southern border as a pipeline for illegal drugs. Meantime, close to a million federal workers are going without paycheques as Trump’s government shutdown over the border wall drags on. Trump has claimed those workers support him.

If using language to create a feeling of emergency that threatens safety and life is Trump’s goal, he’s making good progress.

Language is playing a role in the opposition to Trump as well. A newly elected Democrat congresswoman used a vulgarity to describe the president, and amid the ensuing uproar, Canada’s own former prime minister Kim Campbell was drawn into the melee after tweeting out, with asterisks, that she agreed that the U.S. president was indeed … shall we say … a lover of his mother.

Any communications professional knows that language is always a tricky business. It evolves with the times. Queer and gay once meant odd and happy, after all. Curse words that would have turned our grandparents’ hair white are now commonly part of our vernacular, including in politics, pop culture and advertising. Which is why, in today’s context, the outrage over the slur against Trump -- a word he’s used publicly himself -- seems silly. Yes, the word is a profanity, but let’s not forget that this is a president who once boasted about grabbing women by the genitals and called a porn star “Horseface” on Twitter.

Language can be used more insidiously, and to a more dangerous end, than the current bout of adolescent name-calling. George Orwell warned us decades ago that language is too often hijacked by politicians “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” It’s not just politicians. Corporations and the military have also long used language to minimize the human misery that can result from their actions. Firing hundreds of people is often referred to as “eliminating redundancies.” Civilian deaths during missile strikes or drone attacks? “Collateral damage.”

And so while Rashida Tlaib and Kim Campbell are on the hot seat for using a profanity to describe Trump, maybe it’s not as bad as actual policies, and the language used to bolster those policies, that both demonize and punish innocent people and stir up irrational fears against them. And from a communications standpoint, curse words aren’t often as troublesome as obfuscating, vilifying and dishonest language, and can even be used effectively in clever ad campaigns.

In short: Public swearing in small doses isn’t so bad, and not necessarily a career- or reputation-killer, because everyone curses in moments of dismay or frustration. It’s relatable. But there’s a difference between language and words. Venting verbal spleen is one thing, but dangerous, euphemistic and duplicitous language used to fool customers, clients or citizens is what any ethical and responsible company, organization or politician should guard against.