Last week it was announced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis that U.S. real gross domestic product had dropped in the second quarter by .9%. This report, combined with the previous quarter GDP drop of 1.6% began a long debate from economists and political pundits about the definition of the term recession, and whether these two consecutive quarters of negative growth meant our economy had officially entered into one.
Frankly, I couldn’t care less what the definition of recession is, or if the current criteria for identifying the start of one is fair or not. To me the term is totally irrelevant. However, the way in which both sides chose to focus on the definition of the word recession rather than the economic results of the BEA’s analysis is sadly indicative of a larger problem we face in the country.
I’m not sure when exactly this happened, but somehow, we as a culture have become more focused on the words we use, than the ideas they are intended to express. In his book 1984 George Orwell famously wrote about the way in which leaders would change vocabulary and the definition of words to manipulate and control the masses. That is exactly what our politicians do today.
Think about it, how much easier is it for our elected leaders to simply redefine the word recession, than address the underlying issues that have caused our economy to reverse course? Especially when, in my opinion, it is largely the actions they have taken that have caused the economy to shrink in the first place.
I wish this phenomenon was limited to the world of economics, or even to the world of politics but it is not. Words and language are now the battleground we choose to fight on, instead of the ideas these words are supposed to communicate. It has gotten so bad that not long ago when asked to define the term “woman” nominee for the US Supreme Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson claimed that she could not because she “was not a biologist”
Her refusal to answer this relatively simple question had less to do with her lack of understanding of science, and more to do with her complete understanding of the culture. She knew no matter what definition she gave someone would be offended. Therefore, it was better politically to simply not define the term at all.
As someone who regularly writes things for public consumption, I fully recognize the words I use matter. For that reason, while I focus on the clarity of what I am saying, I am also mindful of how the words I use might be misinterpreted by those acting in bad faith.
Even then however, in today’s world of hyper-sensitivity and political correctness a person can not only be criticized for using certain words considered taboo by today’s standards, but they can also be attacked for using those same words in the past before they were redefined by the very people expressing outrage.
I may be wrong, but it feels like perhaps this pendulum may be swinging back towards common sense and the linguistical witch-hunt may be ending soon. I certainly hope so. In the meantime, as politicians continue to debate the definition of terms like “recession”, “wealthy”, “tax increase” or “fair share” ignore their bloviating and instead focus on the numbers and the data they are attempting to manipulate with their words. Remember, while numbers never lie politicians often do.