Semantics: When a Wall is a Fence

What is the difference between a wall and a fence?  These days the answer is party affiliation.  In the fight over security at the southern US border, both parties seem deadlocked with no solution in sight.  But recent political shows have been debating the meaning of the word wall–is it concrete like Trump first promised his base in campaign speech after speech, or is a fence with steel slats also a wall? This undercurrent to the debate is strong, though when pressed, both sides dismiss tinkering with the definition of the wall as semantics.  What better place than here at Smntks (pronounced semantics ) to demystify this semantic battle?

Semantics is the study of language and the way that we construct meaning from it, so when Trump says the difference between a wall and a fence is just semantics, he says in effect, “the difference between the words will be how I make sense out of each word, and the meanings I construct with them.” This is one of Trump’s favorite weapons. His manipulation of language endears him to his base and makes it hard for his opponents to nail down an argument with his ever-shifting lexicon.

Semantics helps us unpack the connections between objects or referents, words, and the thoughts, ideas, and concepts we attach to them. Words themselves are actually disconnected from the things they describe–that’s why different languages can refer to the same object with different words: cup, taza, and kikombe all refer to the same object. semantic triangle.004

We can use the same diagram (a semantic triangle) to see how Trump connects the word wall to racist and nationalist ideas.  It’s not about the bricks–it is about the narrative that others are invading our country, connecting the object to Trump’s nationalist ideology.

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Now Trump is swapping out words that are similar, and allowing for a change in the object, but he is doubling down on his racist rhetoric. If a fence can be defined as a wall, the symbol at the heart of his nationalist approach can stand intact, the meaning unchallenged even if the fence is steel instead of brick.

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On the other side of the aisle, if a fence can be a wall, the reverse is also true:  a wall can be a fence.  So when the Democrats agree to an outlay of cash for ‘border security’ instead of a ‘wall’, even knowing that Trump’s argument for the need is based on his demagoguery, they can still claim victory.  We didn’t give in to a wall but we do agree to a fence and sometimes a fence isn’t a wall, so our fence isn’t his wall.

The problem is there is not enough energy directed at challenging Trumps racist and xenophobic rhetoric.  Studies about where terrorists and drugs are really entering the US–hint: legal ports of entry and airports–show that a barrier at the southern border is not a priority.  A compromise bill will mean Democrats cave to Trump’s racist conception of Mexico. Trump has hammered this point from the moment he descended into the race for president on his golden escalator and is likely to keep crowing about the wall/fence victory straight through 2020.

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We may seem to just be playing word games, but the important thing that gets lost when we dismiss semantics is that what words mean matters tremendously. Both groups are using semantics to manipulate their bases into believing they have won a nonsensical battle in which all taxpayers will be the losers, paying for an unnecessary wall, and caving to imagined emergencies.  Instead, both teams will have fresh fodder to fling at dazed and confused voters meandering through the fog of words from both sides.

Communication is the way we construct reality, so the person who holds the power to define the words gets to define reality. This is the power of semantics–use wordplay to cement your power, use your power to redefine words–a vicious cycle that supercharges demagogues.  The further down the rabbit hole we go the more meaningless everything becomes, the more difficult for us to return to a normal that is daily redefined.

The technology we use also helps shape our words and the way we talk.  The brevity that came with the rise of the internet also leaves little room for specificity or complex definitions and long elocutions.  Our shorthand discursive environment has led to snippets of communication that leave lots of room for interpretation, letting audiences fill in our own ideas, making rhetoric a weapon that we sharpen on ourselves. Trump’s phrases “somethings going on”, or “we all know what will happen, folks” are examples of how he uses vagueries to fire up the base.  Supporters fill in his abstractions with their own fear, experiences, and prejudices.  Our shorthand culture helps people manipulate language and then hide behind misinterpretation.

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It may just be semantics, but in a culture that is obsessed with the semantic houses we build, words and the meaning we ascribe to them are everything.  Think about the words of late that have tilted our culture into the future:  me too, black lives matter, make America great again, yes we can.  These simple phrases now carry deep complex and layers meaning history and evocations.  Semantics helps us understand the way that a tear-filled victim statement or a die-in shivering in the snow become attached to these words. Moments in history that evoke strong emotion in us are triggered by phrases, like a pavlovian ding that molds us and into an ideological stance charged with emotion.  In some cases, we can scarcely articulate what these things mean to us as they are so broad, a few words that mark a destination far at the bottom of the iceberg of culture, where our deepest beliefs and values lurk beyond the parlance of the common man.

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Word are houses built by the speaker, explored by the listener, and decorated with both their ideas, experiences cultural beliefs and ideologies.  Words matter tremendously.  Like lots of social constructs, they are not real things and yet they have massive real-world consequences.  We move in a material world based on the words we use, and the meaning we assign them. Be careful how you move through the house of cards built of politicians’ words.  Don’t be fooled that you live in a meaningless world.  Be clear that semantics matter. Stay woke to the ways of words and the walls they build.

Susan X Jane

Susan X Jane is a diversity educator, speaker, and trainer. A former professor and youth worker, she now consults with organizations looking to make sense of our current cultural shift. She thinks a lot about media and race…a lot, and writes and speaks about media…and race... and generally encourages everyone she meets to think about the way our identity shapes our experiences, ideas, and beliefs about the world. If you're reading this, she wants you to think about it too. Want to talk about it? Let's go.

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