The Merriam–Webster online dictionary definition of discourse : “The use of words to exchange thoughts and ideas.”
The way our society communicates and shares ideas defines our public policy.
“Faggot,” “butthurt,” “libtard,” “n—-er,” “femiNazi,” “b—h,” “c—t,” “illegal,” “bigot,” “homophobe” and, for the uber-intellectual, “troglodyte.”
Disagreement can be edgy and effective without offending entire races, religions and classes of people.
But our discourse is now littered with these words and often accompanied with vitriolic attacks on the identities, affiliations and associations of the speaker. Find a popular social media post featuring President Obama and read the comment section. There’s a good chance a commenter will state that the President is a Muslim (derogatorily) and then connect his “religion” to his ongoing effort to destroy the U.S. (while conveniently omitting evidence).
Aren’t interweb comment sections where good ideas go to die?
Unequivocally, YES. The odds of changing the heart and mind of someone on social media by typing in a pithy comment (no matter how brilliant you think it is) are about as good as cracking aces holding 7-2 off-suit (poker reference). I’m sure it happens (as my laptop goes flying into the teevee), but it’s rare.
If social media was the only place where this dialogue was found, there might be less reason for concern. However, vitriol seeps. The same language is used on cable news, in opinion pieces in major newspapers, in political campaign ads, in presidential debates and even in the well of the U.S. Congress. This language, in some cases, digresses into more aggressive behavior, overt discrimination and violence against groups of people.
So why does this matter?
Policy discussions shouldn’t be measured the same as discussions you have at the neighborhood bar. Calling a buddy a “fucking idiot” for muting the game and cranking out three Journey songs in a row isn’t the same as debating the biggest issues facing our society. Words matter, especially when they affect public policy. Aside from being immature, labeling someone a “Socialist Muslim” to discredit their policy idea demeans their humanity, and it doesn’t validate your point in the discussion.
It also isn’t productive to simply call someone a “bigot” because they say ALL Muslims are responsible for terrorist acts. This may be the dictionary definition of bigotry, however, name calling doesn’t change the experience, which led to their discriminatory statement. It only creates a confrontation where both parties go on the defensive and retreat into their stubborn ideological corners. Elevating the discourse and changing the anecdotal experience of the perpetrator (obviously more difficult), will have a better chance of unrooting the cause of their hate.
When vitriolic language is used across the political spectrum, it makes it easier to dismiss the impact policy decisions have on a subset of people.
For example, the media will often dehumanize people by calling them “illegals,” inferring they are on the wrong side of an arbitrary line (probably decided by killing someone else). This overt language makes it is easier for policymakers to take away liberties and displace families: they are no longer fellow humans sharing the Earth, they are merely “illegals.”
Another example is not so subtle. In recent comments at a town hall, Governor of Maine Paul LePage uses words such as “G-Money” to insinuate black men are travelling to Maine (I’m assuming from places where he thinks black people live) to deal drugs and impregnate “young, white girls.” The Governor is placing blame on a specific race of people for the perceived ills of his state. Instead, he could have easily used the opportunity to expand discourse into a productive policy discussion on drug addiction and criminal justice reform.
Donald Trump, who is the leading Republican for the Presidential nomination has used words to prey upon the fears of a segment of the electorate who are disenchanted by politics. The Scotch will explore this phenomenon in more depth in an upcoming post.
I chose discourse specifically as my first topic. Analyzing the use of specific verbiage in the media, on the campaign trail and in policy making will be a pillar of this blog. Not attacking the attacker is of utmost importance and the way we use words will ALWAYS matter.
Swearing: effective. Name calling: not so much.