Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Watch Your Language!

Congress shall make no law...

Sound familiar?  Of course, it does - it's the first few words of the First Amendment.  

How about these:

The SAFE Act
"I Like Ike"
"Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too"

What do all these have in common?  The use of language.  In politics, language can be used as much as a means of salesmanship as statesmanship.  Let's be honest - politicians are careful in their choice of words (okay, most of the time) in order to get you to come to a conclusion that favors the politician ("Vote for me!"  "Support this bill!").  And it can be very clever.  Let's take, for instance, the above USA PATRIOT Act.  Do you know what it stands for?  I mean, we all want to be patriotic, right?

USA PATRIOT Act:  Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act.  Quite a mouthful, isn't it?  I mean, who's going to bother reading about something with that long and cumbersome a title, right?  So, let's make it something catchy and at the same time make it sound like anyone who opposes it isn't a patriot.  Clever, huh?  Without debating the merits of the law, it's clever marketing, isn't it? 

Likewise, the SAFE Act.  We all like safety, right?  How about the Security and Freedom Enhancement Act?  I mean, still sounds good, right?  It's actually another law that provides for the amending of the USA PATRIOT Act.  Again, clever marketing.

Campaign slogans are also noted for clever, pithy phrases.  Has any campaign had a better, simpler slogan than "I Like Ike"?  (Okay, "Jeb!" from this year's GOP primary was simpler, but not especially effective, we must admit.)  "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too" from 1840 had a catchy blend of rhyme and alliteration.  Clever, no?.  Both of the above slogans proved effective, too - William Henry Harrison ("Tippecanoe") won handily in 1840 and Dwight D. Eisenhower ("Ike") won a landslide in 1952.

But what does this have to do with the way I started this entry - "Congress shall make no law"?  I want to point out the power of language and the necessity in being precise when we use language about the Constitution, not clever political marketing ploys.

I referred to this concept way back when we started talking about the Amendments to the Constitution.  I asked this question: "Does the Constitution (and therefore, the federal governments) grant rights, or is its function to protect them?  There is a critical difference between the two ideas."

I think (I hope) we all can agree that the Bill of Rights, grants absolutely nothing.  Nope, not a thing. No rights were created by the Bill of Rights (sounds counter-intuitive, I know).   But look carefully at the language:  

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Note that the amendment restricts the government from making laws that infringe upon the rights listed.  The amendment does not purport to grant or create those rights - they are assumed to already exist and the amendment merely erects a legal barrier against government interference in the exercise of those already-existing rights.  Look at some of the following amendments and you will see a similar construction:

"...the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated..."

"...the right of trial by jury shall be preserved."

You get the point.  The rights listed above, among others, are assumed to be inherent, not artificially created by a mere political document.  

So, what? you ask.  So, I encourage you to use language properly when talking about the Constitution.  Personally, I have decided to avoid using the term "Constitutional Rights", since there are in fact no rights created by the Constitution.  Instead, I use "Constitutionally-protected rights".  Yes, I know it's cumbersome, and people will know what I mean if I use the first, common construction.  Still, I make the case that it's critical to the deeper understanding of the Constitution - and how it actually is written and intended to be understood - to use precise language whenever possible.  It can, at the very least, spark some interesting discussions.  So, go and discuss.

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