I was out of the country on November 6th this year (don’t worry, I voted by mail), which was an interesting experience. It turns out meeting people who are on the outside looking in at our election madness is a good way to get some perspective. I realized that this election season, we Americans were having a war over words.
Sure, the thick of the campaign season just felt like a cacophonous mess. But looking back on the whole affair (which we can, now that it’s thankfully 10 days in the past), it seems clear that as a country, we were struggling to define the words that define us. It was, at times, an ugly struggle — but a meaningful one that showed us who we are and what we’re about. It also proved that while words often evolve with the times to stay relevant in a new social context, some words are simply too powerful to be redefined.
So, lets take a look at three volatile words that, in my mind, were the most hotly contested leading up to this election season:
1.) Marriage: The definition of marriage has been shifting in this country for years now. But this year, it came to a head with marriage equality appearing on the ballot in four states. It was a historic victory for gay rights, with three states endorsing moves to allow gay marriage. This one’s a clear win for an evolving definition of marriage. Just consider the fact that Merriam-Webster includes “being united to a person of the same sex” in its definition of marriage. Now it’s time for the Oxford English Dictionary to follow suit…
2.) American: Now, this shouldn’t be a difficult word to define. The OED says that an American is a “native or citizen of the United States” (Merriam-Webster agrees…) But for decades, politicians have tried to lay a claim on being more American than the opposition. Candidates must wear American flag lapel pins on TV, lest they be branded as un-American. President Obama saw the worst of this with the extremely disheartening Birther Movement — but it turns out, being white isn’t part of the definition for being American.
3.) Rape: For whatever reason, there were male Republican candidates this election who decided to take it upon themselves to try and redefine what constitutes rape. There was Todd Akin, who tried to come up with a definition for “legitimate rape.” And there was Richard Mourdock, who believes that sometimes, rape is just part of God’s plan (especially when it ends in pregnancy). Sorry, boys — the American electorate has spoken and your edits aren’t making it into the dictionary any time soon…
On the surface, these might seem like “just words” — but as this election has shown, words can be extremely charged and powerful. Thomas Friedman illustrates this eloquently in his op-ed about why he’s pro-life. The word has been co-opted by a religious movement and imbued with political meaning, but the reality is, the vast majority of humans respect life and are simply trying to live a good one themselves. So why all the fuss over words? Well, remember — how we define words defines us as a society.