Bad Language Makes Good Politics

Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy (forthcoming)
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Politics abounds with bad language: lying and bullshitting, grandstanding and virtue signaling, code words and dogwhistles, and more. But why is there so much bad language in politics? And what, if anything, can we do about it? In this paper I show how these two questions are connected. Politics is full of bad language because existing social and political institutions are structured in such a way that the production of bad language becomes rational. In principle, by modifying these institutions we can reduce the prevalence of bad language. However, as I show, such practical efforts are fraught with difficulties. After first outlining an account of bad language (Section 1), I examine the rationality of three different types of bad language: inaccurate language, insincere language, and unclear language (Section 2). Next, I discuss the possibility of implementing institutional reforms to improve the quality of political discourse (Section 3). However, I then outline and discuss two serious complications for institutional reforms—namely, they create risk of abuse, and they could preclude instances of seemingly bad language that, in fact, are socially beneficial (Section 4). I conclude with some thoughts about how to pursue institutional reform in an appropriately circumspect manner (Section 5).

Author's Profile

Adam F. Gibbons
Lingnan University


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