The Word Economy Of Political Discourse

by Gerard Donnelly Smith

October 20, 2003


What does the word shit mean? Does it describe the picture of shit in your mind? What other words can you think of for the word shit? Who made up those words? Why? Do they describe the picture of shit in your mind?

Does the picture of shit that appears in your mind look exactly like the picture of shit in other people's minds? What color is the shit in your mind? Is the color of the shit in your mind the same color as the shit in other people's minds?

In order to describe the shit in your mind, you must include detail, must expand the picture verbally, because the single word is an ambiguous metaphor, because the shit in your mind is a concept, and as such indeterminate to others until "we" determine for them its exact shape, color, size and weight (i.e., it was yellow runny shit that clung to the wall). I say we, because you cannot describe the shit in your mind by yourself; we must first agree on the grammar and the syntax of the expression which you use, in addition we must share a lexicon which we have classified, categorized and organized according to culturally-specific meanings.

But even in this case, we, as readers might interpret "yellow shit" as meaning yellow runny stuff that clings to the wall and looks "like" shit, but is something other than its appearance. Yes, we share a set of words that mean the same thing, but the image created by that set of words could be very different from listener to listener, dependent upon experience, social orientation and cultural background.

What if I were an interior decorator. I might say, "that yellow runny stuff on the wall looks like shit," meaning not that it looks like "shit" per se, but that aesthetically the yellow liquid (perhaps paint) looks very bad, like shit. So, even the phrase "yellow runny shit" might mean more than one thing, because it is a metaphor. A metaphor does not point directly at a thing, but indirectly. The metaphor represents the image in your mind, and that representation is not the exact thing or object, but an image. The poet and the fiction writer know very well that when we use language to describe an image, we use words laden with many culturally specific meanings with etymologies including past denotations and connotations. We can use these to create ambiguous metaphors with multiple interpretations, each interpretation a different image in many readers' minds.

Yet, the word as metaphor may also come to symbolize something of cultural value: to stand for patriotism, heroism, feminism or myriad other "isms" with which we make our ideologies. We can create symbols, then use them in the allegories of our nation building: the epics of empire. However, allegories themselves remain ambiguous because their meaning resides in words, words that are in themselves metaphors: the real retreats before the scrutiny of the scatologist of words.

The nature of information is ambiguous, because words are by their nature ambiguous. I've tried to use humor to illustrate that point. But some individuals or groups might have been offended by the colloquial/vernacular terms meaning "to defecate." I offend because the ideologue assigns sacred and profane meanings to words, meanings they then cannot or will not critique or revise. Unlike the poet who understands that words simply describe the object, simply create the image in the mind, the ideologue believes that the word is the object. Both poet and politician take advantage of this confusion of the word with the object, understanding that assigning either sacred or profane meaning to words can cause 1) "shit to happen," 2) "shit to not happen," 3) can "cover up shit that has already happened", 4) "revise the shit that has already happened" and 5) "make the shit that will happen appear much less shitty."

We create new words to cover up the unpleasant meanings of other words, of other events. We call these euphemisms: #2, poop, crap. In this way, we hide our crimes, our sins, our sicknesses and our phobias under layers of words: each metaphorically covering up the offensive, literal shit. We create entire sentences to cover up our social discomfort in mentioning bodily functions: "I'm going to the john," or "I'm going to the head." Each of these has different meanings in different contexts. "I'm going to the john" spoken by a prostitute for example. "Or I'm going to the head" spoken by a drug addict. Even the more literal "I'm going to take a shit" is fraught with danger.

Politicians know that similar sound bits can be used to effectively confuse constituents: phrases like "compassionate conservatism" should come to mind. Even the meaning of "is" may be thrown into doubt by the skillful word-wielder.

You too are a word-wielder, a manipulator of realities. Someone once said that everything is political. So then, would all words be political words? By the act of speech, then do you become political? Politic means to be cunning, crafty, to be shrewd, artful, and even judicious. Are you not all these things? Indeed, think of all the really bad words you're not supposed to say in public, but wish you could. Think of the power these taboo words have within the inappropriate context. Think about a really filthy word that you'd say in front of your friends, but that you'd never say in front of your parents. Imagine saying such a word in the wrong company: you would be the focus of all attention upon its utterance. So, you carefully pick and choose appropriate words, selecting words that will maximize your audience's emotional response. Imagine doing something really horrible, like groping a campaign worker, then explaining your mistakes as "rowdy" behavior. As the center of attention, you can define the action, choose the appropriate or inappropriate word: define your "is" as "not is."

Politicians choose words with just as much care. That is why in political speech, less is more: the less one explains a meaning the better, and the more one confuses meanings, the better. Freedom fighter becomes terrorist, liberal becomes communist, conservative becomes patriotic savior of the free world. Such transformations occur because the manipulators of meaning understand the simple efficiency of word order within the right context, at the appropriate time, i.e., capitalist domination of the world market becomes free trade.

So how do we make sure that the determinate idea or concept avoids the ambiguity inherent in all information, in all forms of communication? That shit only means shit? How do we make sure that indeterminacy does not result from the chosen representation of our own ideas? That shit only means shit?

To ensure accurate transmission of data, to ensure that the information we present to others is translated back into the data we intend, that the shit we describe does indeed stink to high heaven, we should create a code that both the producer of information and its receiver agree upon, and agree upon the same rule to interpret that code. Then ambiguity will be completely eliminated from political discourse. We will no longer debate the meaning of verbs and prepositions, nor will we need euphemisms to metaphorically cover the literal crimes of our leaders. Indeed, if ambiguity is removed from political speech, we may avoid such literal crimes which words like "collateral damage" and "pre-emptive strike" metaphorically dissipate.

Imagine then that ambiguity has been completely removed from political information, that we no longer suffer ambiguity within policy, that political words no longer require a thousand other words to understand. Imagine that shit = shit. Imagine political discourse as the ultimate in word economy. Imagine our political language as just like machine language: streams of data that other machines cannot misinterpret. For example: a + a = a, where "a" equals shit.

So praise the politician and the actor who uses few words, who cannot or will not create metaphors, who cannot or will not manipulate language, who will only speak literally. He has been and will be both machine and man! The new messiah, humanity's savior. We shall call such politicians "great communicators." We shall -- with great relief -- greet him as a constipated man greets the movement of his bowels after long suffering.

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Gerard Donnelly Smith, a poet and musician, teaches creative writing, literature and composition at Clark College in Vancouver WA. CERRO de la ESTRELLA (Logan Elm Press, 1992) was chosen for The Governor's Award for the Arts in Ohio, 1992. Excerpts from THE AMERICAN CORPSE (10 poems) were published in Apex of the M in 1995. He is the current director of the Columbia Writers Series, an Honorary Board Member of The Mountain Writers Series, and co-advisor of the Native American Student Council at Clark College. He has also organized readings for Poets Against the War.

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Published October 20, 2003
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