Like many writers I know, I’ve had a passion for words for almost as long as I can remember. I’ve admired those who use words well, who have shaped my imagination and given voice to things I wanted to express but didn’t feel like I adequately could. That is why they have to be protected against assault and degradation.
At an early age I recognized their power to convey deep emotions and longings, knowledge and understanding, hopes and fears. “Words can be polluted even more dramatically and drastically than rivers and land and sea,” one of my favorite writers, Malcolm Muggeridge, once wrote. “Their misuse is our undoing.”
Eventually, we all come to understand that words are the means by which we teach and inspire, defend truth, and seek justice. (Those of us of the Christian faith don’t consider it an accident that the first sentence in the Gospel of John is, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”) So words have extraordinary power—in our daily lives most of all, but in politics as well.
Democracy requires that we honor the culture of words. The very idea of democracy is based on the hope that fellow citizens can reason together and find a system for adjudicating differences and solving problems—all of which assumes there is a shared commitment to the integrity of our public words. If you believe words can ennoble, you must also believe they can debase. If they can elevate the human spirit, they can also pull it down. And when words are weaponized by our political leaders and used to paint all opponents as inherently evil, stupid, or weak, then democracy’s foundations are put in peril. Which brings us to the dismal, demoralizing Donald Trump era.