Artwork by Ella Benitone
St. Mary’s rigorous English instruction sets us up to view language much differently than the rest of the country, including the president.
In the spring of my freshman year, I received back the graded copy of my infamous “A Tale of Two Cities” essay from Ms. Drinan. I anxiously flipped through the pages to find my grade, which I took great disappointment in. Looking over the corrections, I found a word circled and a suggestion for a different word in its place. I was frustrated: the words were synonyms. I wondered, Why does one word — which means the same thing — really matter that much?
Well, the English department at St. Mary’s is dedicated to this exact principle: every word matters.
In fact, St. Mary’s offers AP English Language and Composition which focuses almost exclusively on the study of rhetoric: how to communicate clearly and effectively with others — the choices we make based on our audience and what we mean to communicate.
Academia as a whole largely supports this position on the use of language. Many colleges and universities have entire academic schools and major and minor programs focused on the study of communications and rhetoric. In fact, every college freshman must take an introductory rhetoric and composition class, reinforcing the belief that learning about the power of language and communication is essential.
Rhetoric is a bit of a buzz world in an election season. Political rhetoric is the catch phrases and canned responses that candidates use when discussing political issues in their campaigns. This rhetoric is typically oversimplified, hyper-calculated and often inflammatory. Key examples are candidate Trump’s “build the wall” and “lock her up” rally chants.
Trump has chosen this rhetoric because his voters respond positively to it. Similarly, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are staking out their respective rhetorical “shticks.”
Notably, former prosecutor Kamala Harris has years of courtroom experience persuading juries of everyday Americans to believe her point of view and has thus chosen story-telling to connect to voters during TV debates.
Mayor Pete Buttegieg and Senator Elizabeth Warren are known for their poise and clear explanations of policy positions. Both of these candidates are extremely well educated. Buttegieg, the son of an English professor, was a Rhodes scholar and attended Harvard University, where Warren — a long time academic — was once a law professor.
Similar to President Trump, Senator Bernie Sanders tends to wear his passion on his sleeve on the debate stage. Red-faced, the octogenarian often raises his voice, wags his finger at the audience and calls for a “political revolution.”
Vice President Joe Biden has struggled in the debates, not for the content of his responses, but for their extreme lack of clarity. His word soup-like answers meander through decades of office-holding and rarely reach a pointed conclusion. In fact, in the first debate, he cut himself off without reaching a rhetorical point when his time ran out.
Likewise, Senator Amy Klobachar has not struggled with the words she uses but with her presence on the stage. Her shaky voice and shaking stature convey a frailty and uncertainty not contained in the actual diction she uses.
However, if there’s anything Donald Trump has shown, polished rhetorical skills like Warren’s, Buttegieg’s or Harris’s is not a ticket to electoral success. In fact his intentional disregard for careful use of language is exactly what his voters connect to: Trump is “speaking his mind.”
While this approach did elect Trump to the presidency, it has landed him in hot water now that he holds that office; the careless words of a president can — literally — start a war.
An impeachment inquiry has been opened in the House in regards to a phone call between Trump and the president of Ukraine. While he did not use the term “quid pro quo” explicitly, Trump did not go to great lengths to hide his message: Do this for me or you don’t get what you want from us.
When Ukranian President Zelensky mentioned the military aid he wanted, Trump said, “I would like you to do us a favor though … I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of [the Biden allegations.]”
He reiterated, “Whatever you can do, it's very important that you do it if that's possible.”
Shortly after this transcript was released, Trump, under pressure from Democrats and Republicans alike, released a letter he sent to the president of Turkey about his removal of US troops from Syria. He insisted the letter showed that he did not betray American allies in Syria and give into the Turks.
Trump began by asking, “Let's work out a good deal!” He then admonished Turkish President Erdogan, saying “Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!” At the end of the letter, Trump assured, “I will call you later.”
Either this extreme lack of sophistication is merely Trump posturing toughness for his own benefit or is an extremely crude, inappropriate way to pressure a foreign leader. Either the letter was all for appearances, or Trump — with exclamation points and insults — showed his inability to seriously and effectively communicate with other leaders.
This juvenile lack of concern for his use of words served Trump well in the 2016 election, but it does not serve our country well now that he is president. For better or worse, the president’s words represent the whole country on the world stage, and they show that the academic community is onto something with the importance it places on rhetoric. The reason our teachers make such thorough revisions to our work is that they want us to understand the importance of each word in communicating our ideas to others — how they reflect on ourselves and affect others.
As British Literature Mrs. Love tells her students, we are learning to “give each word its weight on the page.”
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