Questions of Epistemology

Pleasant Progressive1Thanks to their ongoing foot-in-mouth problems, I’ve been mulling over the concept of Republicans saying down right asinine things for a while now. Women’s bodies can shut down pregnancies when it’s “real rape”? Universal access to health care won’t save us money in the long run? Climate change isn’t real? There were weapons of mass destruction? It’s crazy talk—and they keep doing it!

But do these guys really mean what they say? Are they just pandering to their “base”? And who is this base—which of my neighbors honestly believes this stuff? Beyond these more basic questions, what does it mean to have such downright lunacy hoisted into our social dialogue?

Back in graduate school, we spent a lot of time talking about language and the impact of language on how we understand the world. One of my favorite books during those years was Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet. It’s complicated stuff, but her basic premise is that the way we talk about sexuality as a binary—you’re either straight or you’re gay—limits our understanding of the world and of ourselves. Like other postmodern thinkers, she believes that language matters and it can severely limit or enhance how we are able to think.

Although it’s always fun to talk about sexuality, Sedgwick’s concept is easily transferred to other areas of thought, including issues currently bumping around the political arena, like immigration, guns, or even the debt crisis. Eve might invite us to look at how we’re talking about any of these issues and how much the words themselves matter in framing our understanding of the topic at hand. Anti-choice versus pro-life. Gun control versus gun rights. These types of binary descriptions of complicated human experiences and feelings oversimplify our debate, but also how we approach learning and understanding the issues in the first place.

Republicans stirred the pot of FOX News pandering earlier this month when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) gave what he called a “major policy address” (I’m not making up that this is exactly how NPR reported it, too). Cantor said he hoped to “put a kinder face on Republican policies” by framing the work they’re trying to do in Congress in terms of middle class families and the American dream. By making such a big stink about his speech, Cantor was effectively broadcasting his expectations that Republicans begin employing traditionally progressive words to talk about traditionally conservative perspectives and policies.

MSNBC’s Al Sharpton’s coverage of the speech is worth a quick watch. As Sharpton points out, Cantor used at least three specific phrases and ideas from a 2011 speech Obama gave in Kansas. It’s like the concept of binaries flipped on its head—especially when appropriated (plagiarized?) language engenders deceit in our collective understandings of the world, how are we to suss out political differences, particularly if binaries are altogether eliminated? What does it mean if Republicans start using words we associate with Democratic policies? Would they go so far as to lie about what they believe in order to further their own agenda?

Another recent Republican hiccup involved a public disagreement over using the Spanish language to reach Spanish-speaking Americans. After the State of the Union last week, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) delivered the Republican response in both English and Spanish. The Senator got a lot of slack for his awkward water slurp, but he did manage to get his Spanish message across—the first time a Republican response was given in both English and Spanish by the same person.

Although Rubio’s Spanish speech was originally going to launch an entire “GOP en Espanol” effort to help Republicans better communicate with Hispanic voters, the program was delayed over concerns that, as Rep. Steve King (R-IA) puts it, “official business and documents need to be in English.” In this case, we’re not so much dealing with conceptual binaries as language barriers, which makes an interesting case for trying to better grasp how Republicans are interested in understanding the world. Clearly, they prioritize an English-based understanding. But would they go so far as to purposely not communicate to select groups of Americans?

I’ve got more questions than answers this week, but sometimes the right questions make all the difference.

With love,
The Pleasant Progressive

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