Thanks in large part to Schoolhouse Rock, I have been word-perfect in the preamble to the Constitution ever since I was, oh, yay tall. The tune is so rollicking, so delightful. And no matter what, I hear the opening lines “We the people” and I assume that the lovely things meant for the people, like “the blessings of our liberty—for ourselves and our prosperity” includes me and everyone else in America. In other words, I hear these phrases as expansive, inclusive phrases.
That’s how I’ve felt about those words, for most of my life. Included, not excluded.
I don’t need you to @me and lecture me about the wrongheadedness of my reaction to the song. I know perfectly well that when the Founders wrote that preamble and the original version of the Constitution, they were not thinking about African-Americans, or women, or for that matter, anyone who was not a propertied white male. But I’ve been thinking a ton about those words lately, thinking about how I saw myself included in those words and protected by the rights enshrined by the years of case law from the Constitution. And I’ve concluded that language is a highly expandable endeavor, and also, a contractable (is this a word?) endeavor, too. In other words, we want the meaning of words and phrases to expand to include our allies and our partners in the battles we fight. But during these terrible political times, we also may want the meaning of words and phrases to contract so we can ensure that certain really bad actors don’t succeed in using these words and phrases to exclude others and create harm and oppression.
Inclusive language can be such a beautiful thing. It is beautiful that I, a child of immigrants from Korea, saw myself in the preamble of the Constitution. It is beautiful that I have always seen myself as an American, first and foremost, because I was born here and I love this country and I love the pluralistic, welcoming, and tolerant aspects of our national identity (I hope it goes without saying, I’m not so hot on the racist, intolerant, greedy aspects of our national identity).
In other words, it is amazing when you can see yourself in inclusive language, even when it was not intended to be inclusive AT ALL. That is the beauty of language—that you can populate familiar words and phrases with your own meaning, based on your experiences and what you learn from other people’s experiences, too. It gets even better when you realize that other people are populating the same language with their own meaning and experiences. Sometimes, you can form bonds with those people based on how you are understanding big concepts: like truth, justice, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Sometimes, those bonds lead to a joining in common cause. Together, you may be able to change people’s hearts and minds and you can do wonderful things together. That is truly the amazing thing about language, and about communications in general.
Language, like any tool, can be used for good or evil purposes. You can wield a hammer to build a home for someone; you can also use that hammer to smash a window. And the most depressing thing about our last two years, in terms of who’s in the White House and who’s in Congress, is that WE—and this time, I mean, all people who call themselves Americans—are bringing such vastly different meanings and experiences to the same words. And the differences, instead of joining us together and creating common cause, are divisive and ugly and terrible.
I have been expending a great deal of emotional energy on being sick with anger at our elected representatives. They are doing lots of bad things, so many bad things that I can’t even begin to count the bad things, I have days when I feel defeated and drowned by the unimaginable cruelty being shown to women, children, and all non-white people in this country and the license that many people seemingly feel to show their worst selves.
But if I manage to get past my sickening rage (which is not every day, I’ll admit), I’ll spend a little time thinking about all the people who are fervently supporting the current Administration and majorities in Congress and how vastly different they are from me. How I and they think about things like “freedom” and “patriotism” and “greatness” in completely opposite ways. In fact, when I truly process how differently many conservatives and evangelicals and white supremacists are from me in terms of how we react to particular words and phrases, my mind is blown.
I do not doubt their sincerity. Nor do I think they are all stupid. I think they absolutely believe in the meanings they have created for themselves in these words. When I hear Donald Trump and his ilk speak, I hear people who are vengeful, petty, boastful, pathetic. But for Trump’s supporters, he is in actuality “great.” He is patriotic. His “we the people,” his “America” clearly includes them. They feel embraced. Needless to say, it does not include people like me.
So a few things have emerged from all of my musings about language, and inclusive language in particular:
- One: I think we are fighting over many things but one of the many things we—in this case, progressive/liberal thinkers and those who support Trump (I don’t know how to define them anymore, politically or socially)—are fighting over is language. We are fighting over who gets to define the “We the people” of the United States of America. There are those of us who believe that “we the people” includes non-white people, LGBT, people of different religious backgrounds, people who come here seeking refuge and fleeing tyranny. And then there are millions of Trump’s supporters who believe the opposite. And like all of the exhausting pitched battles that are taking place during the term of this president, there will be winners and losers. The winners will be those whose definitions predominate. The losers will be those who feel excluded from the language.
- This winning/losing thing is a new way for me to think about things. For someone who preaches inclusive language in all things, it is funny to admit that I am seeking an outcome where racists, misogynists, homophobic people will feel excluded from the prevailing narratives of the day. I guess I am fighting for the necessary exclusions that fosters the most inclusion.
- I suspect that one of the key ways to win these battles on language is to achieve greater precision about who you are trying to include and exclude in your narratives. In communications, we tend to go for the most all-embracing and inclusive words and language and images we can find. But we may need to drop the pretense, once and for all, that our “we” means “everyone.” We need to be precise about the things we care about, who we are, and the people we are seeking to join with. Lack of precision, by the way, equally afflicts the progressives and the….not-progressives. (Again, I don’t know how to label Trump supporters, other than to think of them as “evil.)
Where I arrived, after all this: I guess it is not so strange that I loved that preamble, and the Constitution itself, so damn much. Because even though the Founders had a far more limited definition of “We the people,” than I ever have or ever will, I guess the beautiful part of the story still holds. That one can see oneself in words that in actuality, were meant to exclude you.
I think one of the many reasons I thrilled to the musical Hamilton, when I finally saw it this past winter, is that it was meant to be cast with people of color. That choice felt clear to me: it was an opportunity for people who had been historically excluded and oppressed by those historical narratives and language to re-claim those narratives. Just like I see myself, and my rights, in the United States Constitution. Language matters and I have the power–so do you–to reclaim words and phrases and to ensure that they stay relevant, no matter what the intent was to include or exclude someone like me.
That gives me hope.