Monday, June 16, 2014

The Language of Politics: Why Every Word Counts

This morning I came across this article in my Facebook feed, about funding for Philadelphia schools.  School funding is a hot-button issue right now, especially in Philadelphia, and rightfully so.  The lack of funding in schools across Pennsylvania, and probably Philadelphia worse than anywhere else, is just one more blight on the disastrous first (and hopefully only) term of Governor Tom Corbett.  This isn't necessarily to say that school funding was awesome before Corbett, only that the financial situation of schools have gotten much worse.  If schools were people and you gave them that perennially ridiculous "are you better or worse off now than at the beginning of <insert name here>'s term?" poll that goes around at reelection time, it would likely be a loud, angry "worse".

School funding isn't what I want to talk about, though.  I want to talk about the words that we use when we talking about government.  Whether you want to admit it or not, the specific words you use are important.  They have implied and concrete meanings that we may not always think about when we speak, but we should.  I'd like to focus on one specific sentence:

"It's time for the state to help us out."
No, it's not.  The state doesn't need to help you.  The state needs to fulfill its obligations, in this case, to the children of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania at large.  
"The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth." - Article III, Sec 14, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Constitution
 The government, be it federal, state, or local, does not "help", "hand out", or "give".  What the government does or does not do is to fulfill its obligations to its citizens.  We have got to stop saying that the government needs to "help" us and we have to call out that language when we hear other people using it.  The government isn't doing us a favor, it's operating the way it's supposed to (or, in this case isn't).

I know this language all too well.  I try very hard not to use it when I'm talking about my spouse doing chores around the house.  He's not helping me, by doing his share around the house.  He lives in our home as much as I do and we're both equally put-upon during our day to accomplish things other than housework.  When he takes out the garbage he isn't doing me a favor, he's doing something that we agreed would be his particular purview.  The same logic applies in government.

The state doesn't need to do Philadelphia a favor.  The state needs to step up and get something done because our government is failing our children right now.  School funding isn't the only place this applies, though.  "Help" language gets used all the time for every kind of funding imaginable.  Don't do it.  Don't treat our legislators like they're giving us some sort of special treatment any time they deign to fulfill their obligations to us.  Saying that we need their help gives them the rhetorical option of not helping.  Hold them responsible.  Tell them that it's time to do their job and we will accept nothing less.