Wednesday, June 4, 2014

I say ACA, you say Obamacare: playing games with words


Like anyone else, I am subjected to the perennial question of "so what do you do for a living?"

A pessimist would say the other person is sizing me up.  An optimist might argue that the questioner is merely looking for safe small talk, something not as charged as I don't know, politics.  So I answer "I'm a writer and a college professor." They then pursue whichever line of questioning sounds more interesting to them.  If it's college, they'll ask, "what do you teach?" To keep it simple, I usually say "English." That's usually followed by a joke about them "watching their grammar" but if they're savvy about higher ed, they'll ask "what part of English?" I'll answer, again to keep it simple, "rhetoric."

My shirt tail definition of "rhetoric" is "finding ways to use words to persuade an audience." I'm especially glad to have chosen this line of study during national elections as I attempt to discern truth from half-truth and spin from outright lie.  It has also been helpful in discussing hotly contested political issues such as the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Or do you say "Obamacare?" Those are, of course, two names for the same thing.  Both carry charged meanings and both are usually employed for distinct political purposes.  Comedian Jimmy Kimmel did a "person on the street" interview asking which one of these two health care plans people preferred.  Many chose "Affordable Healthcare Act" over "Obamacare." Cognitive dissonance much?

Senator Mitch McConnell seems plagued by the same issue.  In his home state of Kentucky, the ACA has funded a health care system called Kynect that has allowed over 430,000 of its residents to have access to medical services.  In other words, this system that is quite popular in his state would not be possible without the ACA.  As usual, McConnell's re-election rhetoric has been heavy on pledges to repeal "Obamacare," to "rip it out, root and branch, and start all over." When asked if he would dismantle Kynect, McConnell replied, "I think that's unconnected to my comments about the overall questions."

Nice try.  No really, Mitch, it was a nice try at evasion.  Just keep spinning things to make it seem that one has nothing to do with the other when in fact they are linked in tandem.  You're on your way to becoming my favorite gnomist.

McConnell joins others of his party in having difficulty with the charged meaning of words.  I'm sure many of you remember the Missouri senate race of 2012 where Todd Akin made comments about "legitimate rape." The problem being that the word "rape" is an absolute.  Someone either was or wasn't the victim of a sick crime.  Adding the modifier "legitimate" in front of it in no way makes sense.  It's like asking if someone is "legitimately pregnant." It's ignorant at best and misogynistic at worst.

Less offensive but unfortunately more prevalent is the use of the word "entitlement" when referring to programs like Social Security.  The word is typically sparged over budget talks and bestows a negative connotation, something along the lines of "you didn't really work for that, you just feel you deserve it." Used in a sentence: "These kids today.  They just think they're entitled to everything."

Well yes, people do feel "entitled" to have Social Security one day.  Why?  Because they worked and have already paid into it.  Using the word "entitlement," however, changes the tenor of the conversation.  I wish I could blame just one party for this but in fact it's both.

I could of course give many other examples and I wish I could go into this kind of depth when I get that question, "So what do you do?" I say this because the more that people know and understand, the less likely they are to be manipulated.

After all, you want to look smart if you're stopped by Jimmy Kimmel, right?


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