We name things based upon how we feel about them. We also feel about things based on how we've named them.
Politicians understand this. When they want to downplay the invasion of a sovereign nation, they call it an "uncontested arrival." When they justify torture of the sort that we hanged people for within living memory, they call it "enhanced interrogation technique." Language manages attitude.
Politicians and priests intentionally deploy language to guide thought. But we all do it unintentionally every day, shaping the culture with the language we choose.
This can lead to unintended consequences. We may mean to say that words should be rebutted with other words rather than with official coercion, and that the best response to speech we don't like is more speech. But the words we choose can subtly promote the understanding that words are violent acts, and therefore something suitable for regulation.
I've rung this bell before, and typically people tell me that I'm being unreasonable and pedantic. I'm not calling for more civility; I can hardly throw that stone first. I'm not decrying harsh rhetoric; how could I? I'm not judging people for linguistic indulgence; after all, it's my thing. I'm suggesting that the prevailing way we talk about speech — even when we are nominally defending it — is contributing to a culture that views it as a legitimate target of regulation.
Take the term "bullying." I've been arguing for years that we've devalued the term. We don't use bullying to refer to the strong preying on the weak for amusement; we use it to refer to anyone we don't like criticizing or making fun of anyone we like. This leads to perfectly incoherent results. The Right1 recognizes that overuse of the term "bullying" might be used to suppress disfavored speech:
Yet the Right just as eagerly overuses "bullying" to marginalize criticism it doesn't like:
Recent dialogue about Donald Trump shows how meaningless the term has become:
If all this talk of bullying meant that we cared more about weak kids being shoved around by strong kids, I'd applaud it. But it doesn't. It just means that we've picked a new word to dismiss arguments and criticisms, without caring about its actual meaning. "Bullying" is the "literally" of political discourse. The term has an emotional impact. Bullies are people who use power and force to get their way, and our gut tells us that it's just to respond with power and force. It's seductive and insidious. Should the law and our institutions protect us from opposing views? Of course not! But should the law and our institutions protect us from bullies! Why, yes! That sounds very reasonable.
Conventional wisdom would blame the Left for misclassifying speech as violent action to be regulated. Speech codes and trigger warnings and "microaggression" lectures and the like are a product of the academic Left, after all. People on the Right (and principled people on all sides of the political spectrum) are pushing back against these fatuities. But at the very same time, the Right is increasingly indulging in rhetoric that promotes the same values. "Lynch mob" and "witch hunt" are omnipresent cliches, used as meritriciously as clickbaity "watch Jon Stewart eviscerate [political figure]" headlines. Those terms are nominally invoked to protect speech, but their message is subtly pro-regulation. Should the law protect us from criticism? No! Should the law protect us from lynch mobs and witch hunts? Why, that sounds perfectly reasonable.
I understand the appeal of these terms. Modern media empowers profoundly disturbing and grossly disproportionate behavior towards the unfortunate target-of-the-day. Sometimes "lynch mob" is not such a rhetorical stretch. Thanks to inadequate law enforcement and sick subcultures, criticism can be accompanied by genuinely terrifying and illegal behavior like death threats. Furthermore, we could be having a serious discussion about whether social and commercial exile of people based on their political positions is productive or proportional, even if it isn't official censorship.
But here's the problem: we don't reserve the language of violence for those extreme situations any more. We're not having that serious conversation. We're venting our spleens. We paint speech with the words of violence all the time. We employ rhetoric that draws a false equivalence between calling out douchebaggery and trying to get someone fired and shunned from society. Even giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt — that we mean to oppose "call-out culture" — the message we're sending is that speech is tyrannical. While decrying victim culture and endorsing thick skins, the Right is relentlessly promoting victim culture and thinning our skins. While calling for smaller government, the Right is describing speech in ways obsequious to government.
I often hear the excuse that the Right is merely "punching back twice as hard" or "giving what it got" or some other variation on "good for the goose, good for the gander." This may be fair, but fair doesn't keep rhetoric from changing the culture in ways we won't like. Take, for instance, the case of Sam Biddle of Gawker Media. Biddle, perturbed by the online movement known as GamerGate, sent a few tweets mock-celebrating bullying.
Anyone with a room-temperature IQ recognized this as belabored irony, the calling card of Gawker. But critics pounced, eagerly portraying Biddle as actually pro-bullying and persuading advertisers to back away from Gawker. Surely karmic justice was at hand: pearl-clutching at wrongthinkers' sarcasm is the modus operandi of the humorless, disdainful turds floating in Gawker's sump. But deserve's got nothing to do with it. The long-term consequences of pretending not to understand sarcasm isn't political equity. It's normalization of dishonest and scolding literalism. It's telling Gawker "you're right! Humor is inappropriate. We just disagree about which humor."
When we engage on this issue, my good friend and coblogger Patrick tells me that I'm being too judgmental of rhetorical flourishes. Perhaps. God knows such flourishes are appealing and satisfying. My purpose isn't to tone police or tell people to mind their manners. My purpose is to consider how our tools outstrip our intentions. We like to think that freedom of speech is a firmly-rooted and universal American value. It is, but mostly in the abstract. When it comes to particulars, support for free speech is fragile. Moreover — as with any push-poll — American support for free speech is very sensitive to how the speech is characterized. Whether people are trained to view critical speech as "dissent" or "bullying" will make a difference, in the long term, in how steadfastly they support it.
You probably have the self-awareness not to ask "why the fuck are you cocksuckers are so vulgar these days?" except as a joke. But are you uttering the equivalent contradiction about speech?
- For purposes of this post I'm using broad-stroke generalizations about Left and Right, sparing you a few thousand extra words and qualifications. ▲
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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