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Overcoming the Political Language Barrier

Often when speaking with someone who does not share your political views, it can feel as though words get lost in translation. A phrase you did not think twice about can be latched onto and cause unforeseen reactions. You think you are debating a specific principle, with an agreed upon definition, only to find out that you have both been interpreting the ideas completely different all along. These occurrences are evidence of what I like to call “the political language barrier.”

On both the right and the left, the meaning of words and ideas are often not the same. Although a Republican and a Democrat may both speak English, people from particular political contexts often employ a unique political language that they believe is most effective for communicating their ideas and connecting with their audience. While speaking “right” or “left” can be extraordinarily effective when preaching to the choir, it often works against civil discourse with those whom we disagree, making political conversations increasingly difficult. Developing an awareness of the political language barrier, and skills for fluency in both “left” and “right” might help our country achieve a more effective and healthy civil discourse.

Political “language” is derived from lived experiences, including family of origin, community, education, and media exposure. While political language often coincides with political views, this is not always the case. Someone who grew up in a left leaning environment may consider themselves a conservative, and have conservative ideas and beliefs, but have greater fluency in “left” and vice versa. Fluency in political languages can be achieved through exposure from conversations with people from different political contexts.

Some examples that I provide below about the “political language barrier” are not one-size-fits-all, but are meant to provide a generic idea of how language affects what “right” and “left” may look and sound like.

An easy place to identify the extremes of the political language barrier is in the media. Pundits on both the right and left are extremely fluent in their particular languages and can often serve as a type of instructor for how to speak in a partisan way. Those who speak “right” have the infamous emphasis on “facts over feelings” such as Tucker Carlson, Candace Owens, and Ben Shapiro. Those fluent in “right” often have a bluntness to their delivery and an intolerance to emotional appeals. If they believe something to be wrong, they will employ “facts” and “logic” to decimate their enemy.

Those fluent in “left” language tend to emphasize compassion, referring often to the disadvantaged or the vulnerable. Fluent “left” speakers can be found across news and social media platforms. Clips of AOC, celebrities, or Instagram influencers sharing their thoughts on the most recent political happenings are a few examples. They may make more emotional appeals or express disgust at topics they disagree with, while also making strong moral judgements on individuals who make different political choices.

When individuals become deeply steeped in partisan politics there is a strong air of superiority and harsh judgement of those on the other end of the political spectrum, furthering their feeling of superiority. Typically, the right will use their facts and logic framework to call people on the left dumb, or incompetent. They are overemotional “snowflakes.” The left uses a language of compassion and moral imperatives, calling those on the right evil or immoral. They are “intolerant bigots.”

The political language barrier is marked by specific “trigger words.” They are words that may seem innocuous to the person using them, but in actuality, they shut down the conversation before it even begins. For example: I grew up in a left leaning environment, despite holding more conservative and moderate beliefs, I am more fluent in “left.” When I first arrived on my more conservative college campus and heard someone begin to talk about “bootstraps” or “reverse-racism,” it no longer mattered what they were about to say. I felt as though I knew where the conversation was going and began to zone out. Although it may not be fair, our chance at civil discourse ended before it started, and they were likely unaware of it. Unfortunately, it is likely that I have also unknowingly ended my chance at civil discourse with others through my language or delivery.

One way to avoid the trigger words trap is to have conversations with people who do not speak the same political language. Ask people what annoys them when the “other side” is speaking. Ask what makes them think that someone is not worth engaging with further. When we grow in awareness of what might “trigger” the other side, we can go into conversations with people with more nuance and effectiveness. Trigger words might still be necessary, but consciously adding caveats and explaining specific words might help the other person stay receptive and not shut down the conversation. Rather than facing the problem of equivocation after an argument has begun, begin by defining and debating your terms. Even if you might not agree on the definition of a phrase, you need to agree upon some definition for the sake of the argument.

Beyond identifying trigger words and defining terms, we can overcome the political language barrier by increasing fluency in both “languages.” Ideally, we can all become bilingual, rendering us capable of fair, nuanced, and productive conversations with others, regardless of our differences. There are options every day to grow in fluency. Read articles and books, listen to podcasts, and follow people on social media from various political perspectives.

In general, being open to conversations with others is the best way to increase fluency in different political languages and to help create respectful conversations with people who might not speak the same language. Overcoming the political language barrier is a pivotal step in building a more unified nation.