It didn’t start with the election of Donald Trump, “it” being the rampant use of hyperbolic language in describing one’s political opponents or other perceived adversaries. It started long before that, accelerated during the war in Vietnam and exploded during and after the 2016 election.
Things activists and advocates oppose are now routinely referred to as “attacks “or “assaults” on selected minorities, women, the elderly, the poor, Christianity or other religions, education, unions, LGBTQ folk — you name it.
Apparently, we are on a war footing.
In addition, there is a list of words that over the years, due to overuse, have lost all meaning and as Humpty Dumpty said to Alice, words mean exactly what I want them to mean, neither more nor less.
When I was in college in the 1960s, we usually applied the phrase “racial prejudice” to someone who behaved in a demeaning manner toward people of color. On occasion during those years, when my mother came home from a bus trip, she would sometimes say, “I sat next to a black man on the bus today, but he was nice.” She meant well, but she revealed at least a racial bias, if not a racial prejudice. But it would never have occurred to any of us to brand such a comment as “racist.” That word was the nuclear option, and it was reserved for the David Dukes, the George Wallaces, the Ku Klux Klan and other virulently hateful white supremacist groups.
Today you may get branded a racist if you merely oppose certain affirmative admission policies on a university campus.
If we consider all of the other labels that have been so loosely thrown about in recent years (misogynist, nativist, Islamophobic, homophobic, transphobic, among them) it is no wonder we cannot have open and honest discussions about such issues. The name calling and labelling have created a chilling effect on our willingness to express our views and even to ask politically incorrect questions. Terms such as “tyranny,” “fascism,” “dictatorship” and “oppression” are applied to anyone whom we oppose.
A friend of mine was recently pilloried on Facebook and branded a racist for doing nothing more than mentioning a negative experience she once had with some people of color in the military.
The places that seem to be hotbeds of all this hyperbole are social media (Facebook, Twitter), way too many university campuses and, of course, many of our elected officials, including members of the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives and the White House.
Today, most of the visceral hyperbolic language emanates from the political left in the form of an ongoing primal scream that started with the election of Donald Trump, but neither side is free of guilt. Swing too far to the left and you are likely to be called unpatriotic or a communist.
Fighting words can be useful when trying to fire up a political base, but as a way of winning hearts and minds fall woefully short. Exactly how many people have had a change of heart after reading a hateful Facebook post? If anything, labelling, name-calling, shouting down speakers and other forms of negative communication simply drive people to circle the wagons and accomplish nothing but a hardening of hearts.
In the end we are left with a dialogue of the deaf: two sides shouting, but nobody listening. If we do not return to a culture of civil discourse, where opposing views and an open marketplace of ideas are not only allowed, but encouraged, where any level of support for a particular elected official automatically gets you branded as a bigot, then we are in trouble as a nation.
We can do better.
Filko lives in Williamsburg and has taught Economics and American Government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.