Last week, President Barack Obama committed an unthinkable act that will have a deep, lasting impact on the political discourse in this country: He mixed up “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.”
Talking about the automatic budget cuts that took effect last week, Obama said he couldn’t perform a “Jedi mind meld” on Republicans, blending his references to the franchises.
He wasn’t alone in putting the cuts in pop-culture terminology. Days before Obama’s misspeak, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta compared the sequester to a scene from “Blazing Saddles.”
These examples show how everyone, even our political officials, speak in pop culture references.
It’s a language that permeates all levels of our dialogue, everything from describing emotions to greetings – one friend and I often start conversations with a quote from Will Ferrell’s 2004 big-screen vehicle “Anchorman.”
I’ve wondered what talking like this says about the quality of our speech, since a woman once told me she thought immature men spoke in movie quotes because they have nothing better to say.
While I think her remark is harsh and vaguely misandric, I do think the greater point persists: What does it say about the quality of our vernacular when our words are so often not our own?
I assume people have spoken this way since we learned to talk. People love a good story, so I picture ancient Romans peppering their speech with references like this: “Like our leader Caesar crossing the Rubicon, I do what I want.”
In modern times, people even judge films on their quotability, which is a large reason why “The Big Lebowski” will go down as the Coen brothers best-remembered film, despite the fact the duo won a best picture Oscar for “No Country for Old Men.”
We speak this way, too, because it’s shorthand. We can speed to understanding instead of explaining a situation and the emotions to go with it.
That’s about being part of the “in” group, showing off how in touch a person is with the cultural zeitgeist. When I wear my Los Pollos Hermanos shirt, it’s a homing beacon for fellow “Breaking Bad” fans who get the reference.
It also cuts the other way. For those who haven’t seen the show, I’m an eccentric man with a canary yellow shirt that has two happy chickens and Spanish words on it.
It’s another way of representing our brands, from the label on the inside of our clothes to the kind of shows we watch. It’s a way to define ourselves.
By regurgitating them, we bury our dialogue, obfuscating the emotional core of a topic. It’s another veil through which we try to see the world.
That diminishes the quality and caliber of our communication. Instead of searching for a better way to explain ourselves, even our president tries to explain bipartisanship to us in terms of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.”
I’m not some lord of language sitting on high and judging all of the lesser humans. That would make me king of the hypocrites. Rarely does a day pass when I fail to make a reference to a TV show, movie or piece of music.
Plus, I don’t want to stop. Sometimes, a well-placed pop culture zinger can be a good button on a conversation.
This type of speaking bonds people, it’s a shorthand between friends and it’s fun. It tells people who we are, where we come from and what we like.
It’s problematic, though, if talking in pop culture terms is all you have to say to someone. That says something about your relationship with them or, perhaps more worrisome, you.
In that way, that vaguely misandric comment is correct. If you have nothing else to say, it’s a problem. But if you do it casually, it seems you’re pretty normal – whatever the heck normal means.
Referencing pop culture has been and will always be part of our shared dialogue. For example, I know someone just read this whole thing and thought of “Zoolander” – “Cool story, Hansel.”
To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.