Guest Column: Of Trees, Words, Realities and Politics

by Dan Powers

If I asked a random group of rational Door County residents of different ages, occupations, interests and backgrounds to visit me and look at the “tall thing” in my yard, I’m quite sure we’d all agree it’s a tree because it meets the agreed-upon definition of things that we collectively call trees.

The literal definition of a word – what we find in a dictionary – is called the denotation. And obviously, in order to communicate, we need to have and agree on a word’s denotation: what it literally means. 

But if I urged my guests to tell me more – to tell me what a tree “is” or what they think about trees – their responses would probably be quite varied. 

To the person who paid a lot of money to clear a sewer line because tree roots had broken into it and plugged it up, I would hear something different from what I might hear from an artist or a person who lives for long walks in our state parks. Environmentalist, scientist, logger, developer would likely all feel quite different about trees, their usefulness or purpose. 

Their responses would reflect their personal experiences or feelings about trees in general – their learned emotional response based on their personal “reality” involving trees. This is called connotation, and it can go well beyond the literal or primary meaning of a word.

So what do personal realities, denotations and connotations have to do with politics?

First, we the public have not collectively agreed on an actual literal definition (denotation) for many of the political words we toss around like hand grenades: words such as liberal/conservative, far left/far right, radical/socialist. I’m sure you can add to the list. 

Furthermore, as we hear and use these undefined words over and over, they become emotional clichés, defined by how they’re used and not by actual definitions. 

That brings me to the second point. These overused terms are clearly not being used to aid communication and understanding. Rather, they are used to create and invoke negative connotations. And partisans, commentators and pundits often do their best to use them to invoke fear and a primal need for us to separate the “others” from ourselves.

Here’s the point: Words are powerful. As adults, most of us realize that words – like sticks and stones – can be used as weapons. Each time we uncritically accept and repeat vague, undefined clichés as a kind of shorthand that’s meant to purposely – and often incorrectly – frame ourselves as the good ones and others as un-American, naive or even evil, then we have allowed our own subjective emotions to be hijacked and used against us. We avoid the hard work of actually reaching any real understanding or critically debating serious ideas.

It may be human nature to believe, support and elect those who use the words that most closely tap into our own connotations and interpretations of political reality. However, as we align and heatedly argue for “our side” – our version of reality – we have been forcing moderate candidates and critical conversations to the sidelines. That’s a dangerous road on which we will all be hurt.

What I’m suggesting is that we have a civic responsibility to look at ourselves and “our side” and try to recognize and temper the extent to which our own biases and realities, political and social, are based on emotions, feelings and perceptions rather than critical thought and observation. 

Challenging our own beliefs is hard. And actually listening and seriously considering beliefs and experiences that are different or contradictory to our own is even harder – much harder than accepting totally new information. After all, our beliefs feel so very real, so right and deeply rooted – so much so that they often rouse us to defend them, to fight for our sense of reality and even to attack the “other” when we feel threatened. 

This is the power that connotation (learned emotional response) and manipulation can have over words and dialogue and critical thinking. It may make us feel good and even that we are justified. Unfortunately, it has also put us and our country into the divisive quandary in which we currently find ourselves.

Dan Powers of Sturgeon Bay is a retired K-12 educator and a member of several community organizations. He self-published his first novel in 2020 and is working on his second.