Two recent conversations with Red Better Angels impressed on me our lack of an agreed-upon standard for acceptable speech and the absence of a shared vocabulary to describe objectionable speech. A Red who I know to be extremely empathetic and respectful of my opinions, took issue with my use of the terms “dehumanizing language” and “incitement of violence.” He suggested that many Reds see those terms as left-wing rhetoric used to attack conservatives; hence, Reds are apt to stop listening upon hearing these words uttered. He also expressed discomfort with the notion of a non-partisan group like Better Angels asking politicians to pledge to refrain from using dehumanizing and demeaning language. He was skeptical of whether it would do any good and worried that it could could constitute an overbearing speech code that offends his libertarian sensibilities and would alienate some Red Better Angels.
I was as surprised as I was grateful for this inside scoop. I had assumed that a Better Angels participant, regardless of partisan affiliation, would want public figures to adhere to ground rules for public discourse that mirror the ground rules governing Better Angels’ red-blue workshops. But as we continued to talk, what became clear was how difficult it is to map the boundaries of acceptable discourse.
Our conversation led me to reflect on what forms of speech I see as dehumanizing or otherwise objectionable:
1-Violent speech. Speech that threatens or urges violence or invokes the specter of violence is unacceptable to me. When comedian Kathy Griffin posted a picture of herself holding what looked like Trump’s decapitated head, it was an invitation for Trump’s foes to relish the fantasy of his gruesome demise. CNN fired her.
In May, a man at a Trump rally yelled “Shoot ‘em” in response to Trump’s frustration with unlawful border crossings. He may have, like Kathy Griffin, meant it as a sick joke. Nonetheless, in the context of armed militias patrolling the border, I saw his statement—and the President’s failure to condemn it—as a dangerous provocation. Likewise, when immigrants are cast as “invaders,” Blues fear that they’re being portrayed as an invading army that is subject to violent reprisals, a fear that was magnified when the Tree of Life Synagogue and New Zealand mosque shooters used the language of “invaders” in their hate manifestos.
Speech with violent undertones is, in my view, particularly dangerous when it targets vulnerable people. Immigrants at the border—usually poor, non-English-speaking, exhausted and sometimes ill or dehydrated, many of them children, are very vulnerable. Seven children have died in border patrol custody since December, and thousands have been sexually abused. For entirely different reasons, so too does any POTUS have a target on his back, which is why Kathy Griffin’s little stunt left me cold.
2-Dehumanization. Talking about or treating people in ways that portray them as non-human or less than human strikes me as extremely dangerous. Language reflects perception and can also affect perception—if we hear people spoken of in dehumanizing terms, we may begin to perceive them as less than human.
Historically, dehumanizing language against a person or group has often been a prelude to violence or even genocide. In Rwanda, radio personalities and politicians started referring to Tutsis as “cockroaches” before calling for them to be massacred. Boaz Hameiri, a fellow at the Beyond Conflict Innovation Lab, says that violence is most likely to occur when political leaders use dehumanizing language against their opponents. According to Beyond Conflict’s “Blatant Dehumanization Index,” mutual dehumanization between Republicans and Democrats is at the same level as mutual dehumanization was between Palestinians and Israelis during the 2014 war in Gaza.
Calling police “pigs” and MS-13 gang members “animals” is, literally, dehumanizing language. Housing detained immigrants in cages is dehumanizing because cages are for animals, not people. Most Blues see the term “illegal alien” as dehumanizing because it connotes a non-human extra-terrestrial. At the very least, I believe the term “illegal alien” falls into the category of “othering” discussed below.
The modifier “rabid” before “right-wing” is dehumanizing because it conjures up a rabid animal. Online comment sections are rife with explicit dehumanization of Trump supporters as “sub-human” or “non-human.” Not to be outdone, a 2016 t-shirt economically dehumanized Clinton, women and leftists in one fell, foul swoop: “KFC Hillary Special. 2 fat thighs, 2 small breasts…left wing.”
3-Othering. To “other” someone is to see them as a member of a different and, often, opposing and/or inferior group. Like dehumanization, othering undermines empathy and can lead to seeing the “other” as less deserving of the same rights as members of one’s own group. Othering is a cause and consequence of tribalism and, as Better Angels members know better than anyone, we’re in the midst of a highly polarized tribal environment in which many Reds and Blues see each other as enemy combatants. In addition to partisanship, othering is often based on race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. It can also function to separate humans from nature and prioritize human well-being over the survival of wildlife.
Othering perpetuates group stereotypes and social hierarchies. When Hillary Clinton said that half of Trump supporters were “deplorables,” she othered anyone who was considering voting for him. Leaning into stereotypes of Trump supporters as bigots, her remark also implied that her supporters were morally and intellectually superior. When former MSBNC star Keith Olberman described Sarah Palin as “trailer park trash,” he othered Palin as well as millions of residents of trailer parks. When Trump foes label Trump supporters as gullible, ignorant, racist, and/or sexist dupes, they are othering them.
When Trump said that Mexico was sending us their criminals and rapists, he “othered” Mexicans.When he, reportedly, said he didn’t want immigrants coming from “shithole” countries, he othered those countries and their citizens. Likewise, when coastal elites denigrate the heartland as “flyover territory” or Appalachia as a backwater, they other the “rednecks” who call it home.
4-Generic insults. Personal insults and labels are hurtful and unproductive. They debase the public discourse and deter decent people from running for office.
Insults are hurled relentlessly. Feckless cunt (Ivanka Trump.) Butt boy (Mike Pompeo.) Sleepy, creepy Joe (Biden.) Crazy Bernie (Sanders.) Snowflakes. Fascists.
Insults can trigger unexpectedly strong reactions when leveled against people with low self-esteem who are easily humiliated. German social psychologist Evelin Lindner calls humiliation “the nuclear bomb of the emotions.” By stripping away the other person’s dignity, humiliation inflicts a mortal wound, leaving the humiliated mind to convince itself of the need to inflict even greater pain on the perpetrator. Lindner identifies horrific spirals of humiliation in the genocidal histories of Rwanda, Serbia, Germany and Somalia, where she learned the proverb, “Humiliation is worse than death; in times of war, words of humiliation hurt more than bullets.”
In light of Dr. Lindner’s observations, I see a danger of even garden-variety snarkiness and mockery potentially escalating into a more dangerous dynamic. And I worry that casual jabs and sneers create a culture of cruelty that rewards self-serving bullies and haters instead of cooperative problem-solvers.
When politics becomes a bloodsport fought by thin-skinned gladiators, there’s a risk of it devolving into political violence and civil war. Already, we’ve seen pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democrats, a machete attack against Democratic students in Kentucky, the assaulting of conservative journalist Andy Ngo, vicious violence at “Unite the Right” marches, the shooting of Republican members of Congress and a number of politically motivated mass shootings.
Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer-prize winning war reporter and an unrepentant critic of both parties, sees ominous signs: “The shaping of the public into antagonistic tribes…is a recipe for social disintegration. I watched competing ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia seize rival mass media outlets and use them to spew vitriol and hate against the ethnic group they demonized.
The poisonous images and rhetoric that were pumped out month after month in Yugoslavia led to a savage fratricide.”
Given the sobering Dehumanization Index data cited above, Hedges’s concern appears to be warranted. Thus far, partisan hatred has not overwhelmed our nation’s institutional and constitutional democratic guardrails, but it’s eroding them. Discourse that is violent, dehumanizing, othering or insulting, turns up the heat underneath a simmering cauldron threatening to boil over.
The question then becomes what the appropriate remedy is for such speech. This can be tricky and is another area where Reds and Blues, particularly when we’re highly polarized, may see things differently.
In evaluating whether and how to hold someone accountable, I consider the severity of the comment, the degree of danger it poses, the degree of hurt it caused, the vulnerability of the target and the power and position of the transgressor. In other words, whodunnit, and what’s at stake?
When the person making the objectionable comment is someone with a great deal of influence, someone whose words are extensively reported and retweeted, very often I believe that person has a special responsibility to walk it back, acknowledge why it was wrong and apologize for it. If they’re not a person of influence or power, then I may still want to hold them accountable if I see their words undermining another person’s safety.
For example, the comment about shooting immigrants at the border, though made by a member of the general public, upset me as much as any terrible thing I’ve heard a politician or media commentator say. If I knew the man who said it, I’d tell him how scared I was that comments like his could lead to bloodshed. I’d ask him to put himself in the shoes of a Honduran child who sees a crowd of Americans laughing at the prospect of shooting people like her. He has a First Amendment right to say what he did, and I have a right (and, I believe, a responsibility) to tell him what I believe his words have done.
When people are not held accountable for speech that is violent, dehumanizing or othering, I believe that public discourse sinks to the lowest common denominator, with members of each team seeing what the other team gets away with and debasing themselves accordingly. It’s a downward spiral that can only be reversed by people taking accountability, especially people in positions of authority. As an outside observer, all I can do is ask them to take accountability and tell them how doing so—or not—will impact my esteem of and support for them. For politicians, the ultimate accountability comes on Election Day.
When President Trump chuckled at the “shoot ‘em” comment and joked about letting the man get away with saying it, he signaled to his audience that such statements were acceptable, desirable even. He did the same when he tweeted that four House Democrats of color should go back where they came from. Two days later, people at a North Carolina Trump campaign rally chanted, “Send her [Rep. Ilhan Omar] back.” At future rallies, I expect to see more of the same, which will then make Blues feel justified in unleashing their own brand of sarcasm and vitriol—and down the sewer we spiral, the threat of violence always on the horizon.
The American Conservative editor Rod Dreher says that Trump is “summoning demons,” whipping up a mob poised to perpetrate violence and invite retributive violence. Dreher writes, “This is horrifying. Republican members of Congress need to stand up right now and say that this is unacceptable behavior.”
If Republican members of Congress won’t heed Dreher’s call, what about members of the public? If Reds were to express disapproval toward Trump or others who use objectionable language, I believe it could be beneficial. Perhaps Trump himself won’t change, but it would make others aware that Reds don’t like it and, perhaps, won’t vote for those who refuse to adhere to some standard of decency. In my book, Beyond Contempt, written for a liberal readership, I invite my own tribe to own “our bad” and dial back our condescension and scorn toward conservatives, regardless of whether or not conservatives return the favor. It’s my belief that, if each of us takes responsibility for cleaning up our personal act and communicating our standards to our fellow Blues or Reds, be they members of the public or elected officials, respectful and productive public discourse can be restored and the incidence of dangerous speech minimized.
Trump’s failure to rebuke the man who said “shoot ‘em” stands in contrast to John McCain who, in 2008, said this to a woman at his rally who said she didn’t trust Obama because he was an Arab:
“No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about…He is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as President. If I didn’t think I’d be one heck of a better President I wouldn’t be running, and that’s the point. I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments, I will respect him. I want everyone to be respectful, and let’s make sure we are. Because that’s the way politics should be conducted in America.”
McCain’s better angel got its wings that day, and the downward spiral, ever so briefly, lost momentum.