Political Language

In The Art of Travel Spring 2017, 2. Languages, Washington DC by Daniela2 Comments

As I continue to orient myself in my new surroundings, language is not a barrier I encounter. English is my first language and this affords me a certain privilege that I have become aware of through travel in Europe, where in most tourist heavy cities, a lot of the people who work there can speak English either fluently or competently enough to get their point across. While I enjoy this privilege of language in more than just my home country, there is a part of me that feels guilty. I feel somewhat guilty that my country’s global influence often seems to take over everything from media to directions which becomes glaringly obvious when you do not have to ask someone to translate a sign for you, as Botton notes in his book. I do not necessarily feel personal guilt because I do put effort into learning languages and in my experience, the natives of the countries where I have been able to speak the language appreciate that effort. What I do feel is a group guilt in being American and that by being a part of an ethnic group that generally does not put that much effort into learning foreign languages, I am partially responsible for the consequences of that apathy.

There is something unique about Washington, DC that I have noticed also makes me somewhat unsettled. Language does shape the ways in which we feel things and how things impact us. As a student of psychology, I often think about how the wording of something can frame the way a person will react to it. In politics, this is a very big theme. There is a difference between what you CAN say and what you SHOULD say in order to address a certain situation. Anything you say can be declared a political statement when you hold a political position even if that is not what you intended. This does not directly apply to me in the sense that I do not hold a political position of any kind, I am just a student and on the list of people who matter you can find me at the bottom. Even so, my politics are inherent in everything I say and can be very easily interpreted to mean something I did not authorize. I hold on tightly to the concept of the death of the author as applied to spoken word as well as written word. Yes, if the word has been spoken, you as the “author” can explain it and guide its interpretation, but for half a second, it has exploded in the hearer’s mind, connecting with sensory information and thoughts and ideas that already exist in their heads and in a way, the initial connections made will remain even after the explanation the author gives.

I am lucky in that I can be in the political center of the world and not be held back by a lack of communication. By knowing this language, a special set of doors are open to me and I always try to be cognizant of that fact. With this in mind, I reflect on Botton once again by thinking about the way that my language makes me feel about my country. We have freedom of speech, at least for now, and therefore the ability to say and express almost anything we want, but how close has that gotten us to our goals? How does that make us feel about other places in the world? Can we identify with Flaubert in that we are tired of what we hear around us because it does not seem to be making any difference at all?


  1. Hi Daniela,

    I found your post very interesting in regards to that Washington, DC isn’t “foreign”, yet it is. I know when I went to Europe, I was astonished to hear “American” music everywhere. In restaurants, shopping centers, etc I heard the same music I heard at home. Currently, in Sydney, the news is Trump 24/7. It is fascinating the extent that America influences international media. I question why in the States we don’t hear Italian or French music. The rest of the globe seems more international while America is egocentric. It is an interesting idea to think that while yes there is freedom of speech but if there is a divide between what one SHOULD say and what one CAN say, is there really freedom of speech?

    Best, KD

  2. I love your focus on unpacking the concept of “political language.” It’s true, when we hear a politician (or the speechwriter to a politician, or the intern to the speechwriter of a politician) speak, we give inherently political weight to their opinions. They are speaking as a representative of a party potentially, or the judicial system on whole, or at least with the risk that their words may be repeated on CNN. It’s a different way than most of us live, and I was very captivated by your attention to this.

    I look forward to reading about the rest of your semester, as I’m considering spending next fall in DC!

    Have a great couple months!

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