If you got the allusion, then you’re definitely one of my people! Aaron Sorkin is, by and large, a god, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the thoughts and fluency he gave his West Wing characters—especially speechwriter Sam Seaborn.
For years now, Sam Seaborn has been my inspiration. If I have to write anything clever, or moving, or dramatic, what I think is, “I have to pull a Sam Seaborn here.” I’ve listened to his speech on the Galileo V mission enough times that I can probably recite most of it in my sleep. (If by chance you missed it, take four minutes now to watch it here.)
Being Sam Seaborn is using language fluently and flexibly to make a point—rather than to score one. It’s being aware that language isn’t always your friend and you need to watch that what you say or write doesn’t betray you or your beliefs.
Being Sam Seaborn isn’t just about sounding good. It’s about saying what you mean, clearly and cleanly and, perhaps most importantly, thoughtfully. It’s about leaving as little ambiguity as possible in what you have to communicate. And it’s about thinking of how it’s going to impact the other person.
Being Sam Seaborn is, above all, the antithesis of the current administration’s use of language and communication. But it’s not just the White House that has me concerned. Sure, Donald Trump’s become known for his language of hate, and while his erratic bumbling invective certainly has a mean-spirited shock factor about it, it’s also troubling to see how the crude concepts he draws upon when insulting others actually reflect underlying social biases we all still have to deal with.
Invective, especially the abusive language and slurs most successful in offending others, draws upon shared images, ideas, senses, stereotypes, and cultural assumptions we’re conditioned to accept as normal and expected.
Let me explain.
What is an insult? It’s overt or covert language that accuses you of not behaving the way you’re “supposed” to behave. Slurs attempt to socialize and condition your behavior to fit the desired characteristics of a particular group. Whatever the group you belong to, pointing out that you don’t seem like a member of that group, or behave how a member “should” behave, can often seem like the worst kind of insult.
We’re seeing this especially with regards to gender and race.
There are two dominant norms in our culture: male, and white. I’m not even talking about privilege: I’m still talking about language. If I say I went to see a doctor, the usual response is, “What did he say?” In order to be clear about my visit, I’d have to mention that my doctor is a woman. I didn’t have to point out his maleness: that was assumed. Being male is the norm.
In the same way—my publisher and I were just talking about this recently—white is considered the racial norm, so if an author wishes to make it clear that a character is African-American, they have to call that fact out. She’s a black detective; he’s the black neighbor. Everyone else is assumed to be white. White is the norm.
This damages all of us. I can’t yet speak intelligently about race, though I’m learning to; but I do have a lifetime of thinking about gender and I can’t see that language has improved significantly over the past twenty or thirty years. Men are expected to be strong and aggressive, women are expected to be docile and deferential, and so the language used against them is biased along those often-unconscious assumptions. While insults aimed at women compare them to animals (bitch, chick, cow, porker) or assign them unladylike behavior (slut, whore, skank), insults to men by and large compare them to… women (pussy, sissy, wimp, poofter). Insulting a man means saying that he’s no better than a woman.
Being Sam Seaborn means cutting through that. It’s working just a little harder to get it right. It’s finding ways to use language to elevate rather than insult. It’s learning how to speak with and about each other in respectful ways. (It’s even, when necessary, finding more creative, accurate, and snappy insults!)
We have the privilege of living in a community that has by and large already thought some of this through. Many of us have rejected gender norms and assumptions in our daily lives… but language is a funny thing. It sticks like a limpet. It’s so ingrained as to be invisible. And it can still hurt.
We have a choice. We can be Donald Trump, or we can be Sam Seaborn. Let’s lead by example, and start with how we talk to and about each other.