Politicians and pundits like to sound smart, especially when they are not.
Like the man who buys a Porsche to compensate for certain personal shortcomings, people in office and the people who talk about them throw around theoretically fancy terms and words and phrases as cover to hide their intellectual – to use a currently popular euphemism – challenges.
But like the man who buys the sports car and then realizes he can’t drive stick, many, many of the nabobs and solons actually have no idea what these terms mean.
To start, take “paradigm shift.” As a person who studied philosophy of science in school (qualifying me to either go to graduate school or become a bartender – I chose the latter), I am acutely aware of the origins and actual meaning of the term. It was not invented by him, but Thomas Kuhn popularized the term in his groundbreaking work “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”
Simplifying, Kuhn argued that science (with apologies to Dr. Fauci) follows a certain pattern of development from an idea, the idea being tested, and then – if it passes muster – the idea becomes the standard model. Then cracks begin to form, a small number of scientists start thinking outside the standard model (for which they are shunned and criticized) and then something big happens – a new spark, an experiment, what have you – and the old model is overturned and left in the dustbin of history (this process repeats itself, by the way, with the new model eventually being overturned, and on and on.)
The overturning of the standard model is the “paradigm shift,” an event so earthshaking that it literally changes the basic perception of the world and reality. In a nutshell, finding a new planet is a big deal but not a paradigm shift – the change from the earth being at the center of the universe to it revolving around the sun, from geocentrism to heliocentrism, was an actual paradigm shift as it made it impossible to view reality in the same way ever again.
So when someone refers to things like extending maternity leave, increased competitiveness in a sports league, changing children’s fashion, the creation of a new de-icing product, new bars in New Orleans, Joe Biden managing to get a bill passed as “paradigm shifts” they are absolutely wrong (these examples come from five minutes of googling the phrase, by the way) and only trying to create a false impression of importance, intellectual acumen, and gravitas.
While it has returned, for the most part, to the obscurity from whence it came, there was a time when one couldn’t swing a rhetorical cat without hitting someone saying the word. That time was fleeting but gravitas – a word very very few people even knew existed moments before they said it – made up for its lack of endurance with its astonishing use and re-use, ad infinitum, when George W. Bush picked Dick Cheney as his running mate. Within one day, the word was used dozens of times by dozen of pundits and politicians (Rush Limbaugh even did a compilation of people saying the word – he stopped at about 20 uses in less than 20 hours.)
The word – which means dignity, seriousness, etc. – was used semi-properly – if rather insultingly – at the time. Long-time swamp creature Cheney was seen as making Bush appear more serious, more credible than he otherwise would have been as a candidate and someone somewhere in DC got their money’s worth from their word-a-day calendar.
Cheney, of course, has been a cancer on American governance for 50 years but at the time he looked stolid and talked a bit gravelly and had a reputation for ruthlessness, qualities that made DC people take him seriously (actual true fact – Cheney dropped his graduate studies, got a job as a congressional intern in 1969 when he was 28, and within six years was Gerald Ford’s White House Chief of Staff – he was either a very very good intern/employee or he was the perfect kind of backstabbing toadying hatchetman that too many politicians like to have around – I’m guessing the latter.)
And the seriousness does not fall far from the tree – Dick’s daughter Liz is now being described as having “gravitas,” too, with pundits going further by adding she has “grace” as well. It appears we are at Peak Liz.
First used to describe the topping out of worldwide petroleum production before the (theoretically) inevitable permanent and massive decline, peak is now used willy-nilly to describe practically everything that there seems a lot of but might be going away soon. From “peak water” to “peak Russiagate,” it is used in almost every context but only occasionally used properly so what we have here is an existential threat to the language.
Ah, existential threat.
This is definitely the term du jour. Everything under the sun – including the sun – is being described as an existential threat. Climate change, Donald Trump, quantum computing, Donald Trump, megafloods, Donald Trump, China, Christian Nationalism, Republicans, and even Donald Trump have all been deemed existential threats. But what does it actually mean?
In part, the usage can – in some cases – be deemed correct. An existential threat is – in part – defined as a threat to the very existence of a thing, a planet, a system, etc. It is terminal, global, and transgenerational – in other words, it’s the whole magilla (a bit like the class of event described in paradigm shift and for a deeper dive on the idea, you can see here: https://theglobepost.com/2019/05/17/existential-threat-rhetoric/ )
But the term also allows the user to define the threat, which opens the door to anything being described as such. There is also the issue of the origin of the term – existential philosophers focused on subjective ideas of thought and emotion and action as they relate to existence while the more concrete “threats” described when the term is used are putatively real and specific (and don’t get me started on “existential challenge.”)
The term is used, in fact, to apply a thin veneer of intellectual certainty – gravitas, if you will – to the threat it is claiming, whether it be Donald Trump, the climate, or Donald Trump. To put it simply, existential threat just sounds scarier than potential problem even when something is a nothing burger.
Ah, nothing burger.
Though the origins seem a bit hazy (and probably not related to Whataburger), the term has become synonymous with a seriously hyped event turning out to be no big deal. Fine in the context of “I went to a concert that I was really excited about but, well, eh,” but in the world of politics it is used to denigrate even the initial issue itself. Russiagate was a nothing burger – true. Hunter Biden’s laptop was a nothing burger – false. Nothing burger is too often used as a way to deny a reality after the fact and its use could be seen as a form of gaslighting.
From the film “Gaslight,” in which the bad guy tries to convince his wife she’s insane to make it easier to steal her jewelry (waaay over-simplified,) the term is used now far far too often as shorthand for lying or dissembling by a politician or pundit. While the ridiculous statements may make a person feel they are living in an insane asylum the specific intent may be more prosaic and merely involve grubby politics, hiding inconvenient facts, pandering, convincing what people see with their own eyes has a different meaning than they think, and the other far too numerous ways in which PR flacks offend the basic concept of objective truth. While all of these aspects are bad and an insidious disservice to the nation’s civic life, they may only be trying to evilly extend their control into every facet of life but not actually be trying to drive people nuts.
Ah, actually trying to drive people nuts.
Gavin Newsom is the governor of California and most likely (very times a million likely) to run for President soon. But – with his astonishing hypocrisy and jargon jambalaya he uses every time he speaks – it is not inconceivable that he is purposefully trying to push the public off the mental health cliff.
Wednesday, he asked Californians to not plug in their electric cars after work because the state’s power grid is stressed by the heat (actually it’s been stressed by mismanagement and absurd climate-related regulation, but that’s for another time.)
Six days before that, the state banned the sale of new gas-powered vehicles starting in 2035.
The cognitive dissonance caused by these two diametrically antithetical positions/statements has led people to question the nature of reality, to say the least.
While speaking on this issue, Newsom went classic Gavin, using phrases like:
- Opportunity to elevate consciousness
- Success in that space
- Extend our thinking
- Etc., etc., etc.
Honestly, it made me wonder if the threat of an existential paradigm shift had peaked or if he just lacks gravitas and is a big gaslighting nothing burger.
Time will tell.
But until then, the public needs to be leery of the loose lexicon of our lackadaisical leaders and the literati that listens to and echoes every extraordinary exclamation.
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