After months of political debate in which neither side seemed even slightly capable of understanding the other ― despite high-volume use of Merriam-Webster ― one small but mighty publication decided the time had come to intervene.
Recently, The Point, a philosophical magazine based in Chicago, kicked off “The Crisis of Language Project,” a crowdsourced initiative to Make Words Mean Something Again.
“When we heard Kanye West describe Donald Trump’s speaking style as ‘very futuristic,’” writes the team at The Point, “we knew we could no longer stand idly by.” Honestly, same. But what could be done, in this confusing yet galvanizing time?
As it happens, The Point had a specific response in mind, rooted in an entire presidential campaign’s worth of meaning-free rhetoric that left the two sides, liberal and conservative, talking past each other. “The Crisis of Language Project” is billed as a desperately needed initiative to “assemble a pocket dictionary. This phrasebook,” The Point explains, “will help us express ourselves effectively and understand each other with ease, no matter our political differences.”
In an email to The Huffington Post, the publication’s editor, Jon Baskin, affirmed that “the individual entries in the dictionary are meant to be funny, but the point of the project itself is dead serious.”
In a time when, as the project’s introduction notes, writer George Saunders argues we have “become ‘two separate ideological countries ... speaking different languages,’” a dictionary seems like the perfect solution. How else are we to understand each other?
Then again, when the differing definitions have less to do with simple ignorance and more to do with ideological combativeness, the obstacles seem daunting. If Politifact and Merriam-Webster couldn’t provide Americans with a shared set of facts and definitions, does a phrasebook assembled by a highbrow literary journal really stand a chance at disrupting the fog of partisan division in a post-Trump’s election America?
The Point is soliciting definitions, both on their website and via Twitter (using the hashtag #langcrisis), but have also provided some telling examples:
America: i) previously great. ii) already great. iii) never great.
Economics: the opposite of race. “Actually, ~ explains everything.”
Electoral college: i) body designed to ensure less prominent regions have a voice in the election of the president and thus mitigate geographical inequality. ii) conservative conspiracy to destroy America. iii) liberal conspiracy to destroy America.
By offering partisan-tinged definitions for each loaded term, the phrasebook does plenty to comment on the depth of the language divide between different parties. The internet is defined as the “greatest force of democratization since the Second World War” and, alternatively, “bubble.” Baskin told HuffPost that the project came about in response to how “others in the (broadly speaking) liberal space, instead of seeing the election as a chance to re-examine the way they were communicating about their ideas, seemed to be doubling down on political vocabularies that many find moralistic and alienating.”
However, the sharp juxtapositions of The Point’s definitions also cast a bit of a mocking tone on the less factually based definitions ― which only reifies the current level of disdain between factions who see each other as intellectually bankrupt. And by offering no clear bridge between those definitions, it risks codifying, rather than ameliorating, the immense contradictions in terms between the left and right.
Then again, who has any idea what will really fix the exploded middle ground between those sides?
“Our hope,” Baskin told HuffPost, “is that people will have fun participating in the project, but also that it will genuinely cause them to reflect on the way they (we) are all using words when we talk about politics right now.”
Maybe projects like this one, which The Point terms “A Race to Save American Discourse,” will really help save American discourse. Or, at the least, they’ll bluntly and eloquently shed light on just how isolated from each other we have become.