If Words Matter, Use Them Responsibly

As someone who makes a living with words, it bothers me that so many choose to use them wastefully, extravagantly, and paradoxically enough, cheaply in today’s political discourse.

Many have argued that our politics are at the most polarized point in recent memory.  To date, I’ve scoffed at the alarmists, pointing out that the invective of our early Republic was more inflammatory than even today’s feverish exclamations.  During the presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1800, the following things were said:

Jefferson’s camp accused President Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” In return, Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward. Even Martha Washington succumbed to the propaganda, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was “one of the most detestable of mankind.”

Yet the events of this week demonstrate that things have gone too far.  The attempted assassination of the GOP baseball team, which resulted in serious injury to Congressman Steve Scalise, and gunshot wounds to staffer Zach Barth, lobbyist Matt Mika, and heroic Capitol Police Officer Crystal Griner (Officer David Bailey was treated for a minor injury and released from the hospital), could be seen as the work of a single mentally unstable man, James Hodgkinson, but I find it hard to believe that he would have acted as he did without the current feverish atmosphere of national politics in America.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, for which I am glad.  People have a right to use inflammatory rhetoric, but that doesn’t mean that they have an obligation to us it.  How you choose to use words is your choice.  If words matter that much, shouldn’t we use them responsibly?

I’ve noted how a number of the things I’ve written have drawn criticism from people on both the left and right.  What this tells me is that many people are spoiling for a fight when they turn to Facebook or Twitter; otherwise how could a post about Attorney General Sessions’ boyhood experiences draw accusations from the right of slandering a civil rights hero, and from the left of excusing racism and discrimination?  People want to fight, because getting angry makes them feel good, however temporarily.

Trump is an exemplar, and perhaps the trigger of this new tone.  He may very well be the first president impeached based on the evidence found in his angry Tweets!  Yet he has no monopoly on inflammatory language.

The recent production of “Julius Caesar” by Shakespeare in the Park sparked controversy by dressing Julius Caesar like Donald Trump, and going out of the way to make the comparison obvious–Caesar’s wife Calpurnia speaks in a heavy accent (an obvious nod to Melania Trump) and another character even speaks of Caesar’s supporters, saying, “Had Caesar stabbed their mothers — on Fifth Avenue — they would have done no less.”

This is free speech, but it also strikes me as both reprehensible and poor theater.  Poor Julius Caesar was a great military leader and politician; to compare him to a real estate developer who rode a populist wave to the highest office in the land is an insult to Caesar.  Portraying Caesar as Trump and staging a bloody assassination might be wish fulfillment for his opponents, but it’s also dangerously close to advocating violence.  While the director tells the audience, “Neither Shakespeare nor the Public Theater could possibly advocate violence as a solution to political problems, and certainly not assassination,” this seems awfully close to the kind of “wink wink” verbal gymnastics that Trump engages in.

I can already hear the torches being lit: “He’s apologizing for Trump!  He’s calling for censorship of legitimate criticism!”  Never mind that I’ve carefully balanced the examples I use; both sides will no doubt use this post as more evidence that I’m a tool of the other side.

But let me ask you this–if you believe that inflammatory rhetoric is helpful to your cause, can you explain why?  Does symbolically assassinating Trump, or holding up his fake severed head help convince any of his supporters to change their minds?  Does loudly proclaiming your love of guns and hinting that you’ll “do something” about your opponents convince them to switch to your point of view?

I’ll accept that inflammatory rhetoric might fire up the base, but I suspect it turns off the even greater number of people who are stuck in the middle, and it doesn’t seem like a good long-term strategy for winning elections (Trump’s victory should be chalked up to Hillary Clinton’s weakness as a candidate–partially due to her poor skills and bad strategy, and partially due to sexism and unreasoning hatred of her).

And if you still think that the best way to convince people is to yell louder, well, to quote the Bard, “A pox on both your houses!”

4 thoughts on “If Words Matter, Use Them Responsibly

  1. Thank you Chris! I couldn't agree more!

  2. I find it interesting that when complaining about the play, most people, but especially critics on the right, miss two things:

    1) Ceasar is almost always depicted as a current leader (he was recently Obama-like). If you saw the play in France, he'd probably be like Marcon

    2) Ceasar isn't the *villain* of the play, he's its *hero*. He is very obviously depicted as the beloved leader of the people, whereas the assassins are the villainous heads of a deep state. It's fairly obvious that this paints Trump in a good light (compared to his actual image IRL, anyway)

  3. I agree that it's getting worse. I'll be surprised if it becomes the long term standard.

    Presuming that's the truth, there's a part of me that wonders if it's worth being really bad to get to some level of dialog we've never experienced, let's face it it wasn't all that great before this so to me it's sinking from a standard that was sinking.

    With Trump and issues like this too I hold to, perhaps naively, to the idea that it's in service to something far greater on the way.

    You point to a serious issue when you mention mental instability. Although if we try to adjust communication to ensure not triggering mentally unstable person we are putting attention to a losing battle to a symptom that has a much worse problem that is woefully unattended to.

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