Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Rise of Name-Calling Nation

Wow, way to raise the discourse!
I’m getting heartily sick of the word “fascist.” Political pundits on both sides of the aisle love throwing that word around with reckless abandon, often in disregard of the facts. Certain incoming American presidential administrations who shall remain nameless have, indeed, demonstrated structural characteristics reminiscent of classic Italian Fascism. Yet the casual attitude people use with the term reflects not political enlightenment, but fear of marked difference.

2017 is shaping up to be the Year of Nasty Name-Calling. Shouters from the Left have made “fascist” their rallying cry, while from the Right, “snowflake” and “cuck” have become ubiquitous and annoying. Both sides have managed to cheapen their debating stock by hollering the same repeated buzzwords until they’ve lost all meaning. This doesn’t merely undermine the principles of political discourse; it weakens our ability to communicate using language.

It’s tempting to attribute all manner of causes for this rising disparity. The increased importance of partisan news sources like Fox News and MSNBC means many Americans need only receive information they know they’ll already agree with. The “other side” gets heard only in contexts where their loss is foreordained. And social media provides a ready-made platform for clickbait, including the “fake news” we’ve heard ballyhooed so much recently.

But considered coldly, that doesn’t make sense. While improving Internet technology and the proliferation of deep-numbers basic cable channels have created new crevices for partisan bomb-throwers to fester in, print has always given voice to one-sided pseudo-journalism in titles like The Nation and The American Spectator. And supermarket tabloids have appealed to Americans’ hindbrain fears and knee-jerk judgmentalism for generations already. Shitty news, sadly, isn’t new.

Likewise, we could attribute Donald Trump’s frequently ugly language for the normalization of name-calling. His rallies stopped short of dropping N-bombs, but he did call Mexicans “rapists,” urge the exclusion of religious groups from receiving American visas, and encourage followers to pummel protesters. But that feels hollow, given historically ugly political language. Having such posturing from the presidential rostrum may be new, but sidemen have always talked that way.

Indeed, since I began following politics around 1988, there has always been ugliness. Ads produced by future Fox News head Roger Ailes, including the notorious Willie Horton spot, and the image of Governor Mike Dukakis wearing a tank commander helmet that looked like Mickey Mouse ears, propelled George HW Bush to President without addressing issues. Let’s skip Walter Mondale, who lost in 1984 despite accurately predicting Reagan’s impending tax increases.

So ugly political language isn’t new, isn’t technology-driven, and probably has no single source. However, it’s distinctly powerful: Hillary Clinton, who had majority favorable poll ratings when she announced for President, found herself fourteen points underwater by election day. Maybe that’s because facts got slung her way during the campaign, but probably not. She had actual policies that polled well, which Trump lacked, but her opponents had "Trump That Bitch" t-shirts.

Meanwhile, the insults actually slung become meaningless. “Snowflake” originally meant “special little snowflake,” a reference to the idea that individuals’ feelings are sacrosanct from insult and disparagement. It goes back to Mister Rogers-era pedagogy telling children “everyone is special, in their own way.” Kids don’t buy that buncombe: I remember thinking, if everybody is special, nobody is special. But this philosophy survives as insults flung at anyone my age and younger.

The image many pundits partly blame for
killing Michael Dukakis' presidential hopes
Look at the tweet above, using the term “snowflake.” One asshole says “calm down, snowflakes,” to policy experts who observe that poked bears bite back. This isn’t about protecting anybody’s precious feelings, it’s about not provoking a confrontation with a nuclear-armed opponent with a nationalist government. The insult has come unmoored from its origins, simply because the insulter hopes to provoke high feelings. And language progressively becomes meaningless.

Losing our linguistic anchors isn’t some academic exercise. If, through the coming administration, insults and name-calling become standard rhetoric, the effect will be cumulative. Ordinary citizens already don’t talk politics across the aisles (any mention of Hillary Clinton at my workplace results in a shouted tirade from my boss about Whitewater and the Rose Law Firm). Legislators don’t live in Washington full-time or meet for drinks after work anymore.

Political rhetoric got this ugly once before. When that classic name-caller Andrew Jackson got elected president, his all-or-nothing discourse drove his opponents to form the Whig party, establishing America’s two-party electoral system. And ugly language in Congress led to Congressman Preston Brooks beating Senator Charles Sumner on the Capitol rostrum with a cane. Not long after, the Civil War began. Let’s agree to prevent that happening again.

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