America’s ‘big-league’ problem

If you are one of the lucky few who grew up poor but managed to thrust yourself into the middle class or beyond with an advanced degree, then you might have noticed a change in how you speak. The language of the educated is fundamentally more rigid: Words have more precise definitions and grammar is strict. Nuance becomes significantly easier, albeit at the expense of general understanding.

This language barrier is a “big-league” problem and it’s not new. Americans love rags-to-riches stories. The belief that your success should be based on hard work and not, say, race or title, is perhaps the defining philosophy of America. We are not a people united by a shared history (the U.S. is a country of immigrants from all over); we are a people united by a shared vision of the future.

As income inequality continues to grow, upward mobility is becoming a function of luck more than hard work. Those who are fortunate enough to make it, do so by randomly learning from excellent teachers, meeting the right people, learning the right skills. Along the way, we start to speak differently.

President Donald Trump’s speech pattern is reminiscent of what I heard from neighbors as a child. When he speaks, he says whatever he wants; he is unconcerned with nuance, precision or even consistency. Sarah Palin, too, speaks like many of the stay-at-home mothers I knew who sometimes participated in conversations even if they had not considered the topic until that moment. Bill Clinton’s diction reminds me of my grandfather, a carpenter, who is entirely self-educated and confident in his knowledge. (He would not appreciate the comparison since he is a life-long Republican—sorry, Papa Charlie!)

All Americans crave successful leaders with whom they identify. For a person who is failed by America’s contemporary economy, Trump’s every-man manner of speaking and his purported billionaire status is a reignition of the American dream.

During the campaign, he became a symbol of hope for millions. For those like me who have crossed the poverty line via an education, I feel very much caught between two worlds. Trump’s economic platforms contain plans that would widen income inequality and would make upward mobility even harder.

Many of his other platforms are too vague or counter to my personal values. Yet, I find myself often cringing at the comments from friends and acquaintances with whom I agree politically. Criticisms of Trump and his cabinet focus too much on how they convey their ideas. It reminds me of moments in school when fellow students or teachers ridiculed me for what essentially amounted to sounding dumb.

They focused on how I expressed my ideas rather than the merits of the ideas themselves. I doubt I am alone in this experience. Arguments about diction lead to dead ends and derail any discussion about actual policy. We need to care less about the mistakes in wording and more about the argument itself. For example, it is less important that Kellyanne Conway mistakenly referred to an erroneous “Bowling Green Massacre” and more important that she conflated increase restrictions on Iraqi travel visas with the strict travel ban.

Even so, I hear about the former mistake much more than the latter one. I doubt anyone is actually swayed by pointing out such a gaffe. I suspect those critical of the Trump administration get a good laugh while those supportive of it shrug off the criticism as unimportant. For most people, being inarticulate and imprecise is not that big of a deal. Modern persuasion needs to embrace this reality.

Sara Jamshidi is a Penn State graduate student studying mathematics.