Words Matter: Setting the Tone for Political Discourse

October 12, 2020

By Vince Williams, GMA President

This article is part of GMA's Viewpoints catalog, a grouping of opinion pieces from the GMA magazine, speeches and other editorials.

“Remember that I love you, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it” are words I often use to end meetings I chair. I do this for two reasons. First, I hope it brings a smile and a good feeling to those that hear it. Second, and more importantly, I want to convey to them that as a public servant, I value and respect them and their humanity, regardless of if we agree or disagree on an issue. That, in my opinion, doesn’t happen as often as it should in our political discourse.

I think most of us would agree that we find ourselves in times best described as being polarized. This is due in part to the upcoming national and state elections and how we think things will be if candidates we support lose their election. The other part of it is due to the stress and upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the racial and equity issues that have arisen from the death of George Floyd and numerous other people of color.

These events have highlighted vast differences in what people think the appropriate course of action is to address them. I believe, though, that the polarization we are experiencing is fueled by the words we use when talking about these and other issues.

If you are familiar with Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” you may remember that Alice and Humpty Dumpty had a conversation about the meaning of words.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty says, in a rather scornful tone, “It means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” says Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” says Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Words and how we use them, are important. They can be used to unify or divide, seek the truth or misdirect, build up or tear down, provide hope or spread fear. Just as importantly, “which is to be master” and who gets to decide what words mean, is crucial.

We’ve lost ground when the words “conservative” and “liberal” are hurled as insults as opposed to them being used to provide a general picture of a person’s political persuasion. Nor do I believe that derisive, inflammatory rhetoric that paints those with differing opinions as a threat increases our civic health or moves the needle on solving common challenges.

Our nation, state and communities are comprised of people that represent different backgrounds, political philosophies, races, genders, professions and religious persuasions. We must look upon this diversity of experiences as a strength rather than something to exploit for political gain.

I believe city officials can, and should, set the standard for political discourse for others to follow. And we can start by challenging those that want to divide us by communicating in a manner that upholds the ideal that our democracy is grounded in the respect and dignity of every man and woman.

Remember that I love you, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.

This article appears in the September/October edition of Georgia’s Cities Magazine.

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