Posts Tagged ‘rhetoric and language of war’


In PeaceAble on July 26, 2016 at 9:17 am

Let me be clear. That meme you’re so excited about is not going to DESTROY Hillary Clinton. That factoid you’ve just found on your favorite FB page doesn’t mean that TRUMP WILL NEVER BE PRESIDENT if “everyone” shares it. Despite the proclamations of right-wing hyperventilation, Hillary Clinton is not a TRAITOR who is about to be INDICTED because of that YouTube video she DOESN’T WANT YOU TO SEE. And the latest LEAKED MEMO isn’t going to be the SCANDAL that will bring down whatever. In the same way, the latest overnight poll numbers are not PROOF TRUMP WILL BE OUR NEXT PRESIDENT, just as yesterday’s numbers don’t show HILLARY CLINTON POISED FOR HISTORIC WIN THAT WILL DESTROY REPUBLICAN PARTY.

So chill. Please.

One of the consequences of the country’s polarization, and some of the best evidence of its influence, is that everybody is writing terrifying headlines in all caps every time one of the candidates or their supporters sneezes. GOLDENROD ALLERGY DESTROYING BERNIE SANDERS NOSE MUCUS! REAL REASON HE CAN NEVER BE PRESIDENT!

So let’s stop. Now. Really.

Because this level of hyperbolic shouting at one another is both cause and a symptom of some other disturbing trends.


This is both figurative and literal. There are actual members of Congress telling their constituents that Hillary Clinton ought to be shot for treason. There are actual real delegates to the Republican Convention (not to mention their nominee) who are tweeting out messages calling for death to Muslims, abortion providers, protesters, and rival candidates. There are Democrats who are calling for a revolution to bring down the Democratic Party even if it means Trump gets elected because maybe then we’ll all “wake up.” There is a growing sense that winning a debate or an election isn’t enough, the opposition needs to be completely vanquished, done away with and destroyed.

This is not how our democracy is supposed to work. No party is supposed to have, as Karl Rove dreamed it, a “permanent majority.” Winning an election is not supposed to be a mandate to obstruct and posture and refuse to work with the other parties. And losing an election means you are supposed to step aside willingly and let the winners take office. We cannot afford to develop into a society that threatens the press, punishes political opponents and encourages violence in our rhetoric and especially in our daily interactions. Shooting policemen will not solve the problems of police violence. Beating up random Muslims or burning mosques will not solve the problems of Islamic radicalization.

And the idea that violence and revolution are good ways to bring about social and political change is what leads to things like assassinations and domestic terrorism.


Superheroes are big these days. Whether we are talking about the classic DC and Marvel costumed crusaders or larger than life military characters, or James Bond and Jason Bourne superspies with a license to kill; people are flocking to watch good defeat evil.

But there are two problems with this.

First, superheroes don’t really exist. And the more we admire them and look for them, the more likely we are try to create them out of the actual flawed human beings we are asking to help us solve our real human problems. And when we do that we are setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment. Electing Barack Obama as president did not mean the end of racism, did not heal our racial wounds. No one man can do that. And electing Hillary Clinton will not miraculously open the doors of power for women everywhere. The president who follows Barack Obama will be white; the president who follows a Clinton presidency will probably be white and male. And it is highly likely that the president after that will also be white and male. And there is no superhero we can elect who will single-handedly change that. We all of us have to do the work, together, slowly, day by day, in small ways and large, in order for problems to be solved and change to be made.

Second, superheroes require supervillains. But supervillains don’t really exist any more than superheroes do. And we are far too busy right now creating imaginary supervillains for our imaginary superheroes to do battle with. If Trump is your superhero who is going to make America great again; then Clinton and the “liberals” have to be sinister and evil supervillains to be defeated in epic battle. If Sanders is your Superman then the big banks, the wealthy one percent and the oligarchy are transformed into Lex Luther and his minions. The Republican Party is drawing dark illustrations of America as Gotham City; the Democrats have a slightly rosier picture of America as Metropolis in the comic books of my childhood: essentially sunny, but with always the risk of a supervillain or an alien being threatening the quietude.

But nobody expects their neighborhood superhero, whether friendly or deeply brooding, to snatch up jaywalkers, arrest petty criminals, or rebuild a crumbling infrastructure. And all the problems are fixed quickly and dramatically with no cost to the taxpayer.


Here’s a clue: if millions of people disagree with your position, in whole or in part, then the truth of it is clearly not self-evident. It is, in fact, not even indisputable on the evidence. This doesn’t mean that you are wrong. It merely means that you cannot make your case once and be done with it. You have to keep persuading, keep arguing, and keep working; even after it seems you’ve finally won. Forgetting this means two things.

First, there will be backlash, there will be backsliding; and thinking you’ve won and the argument is over may leave you unprepared to deal with those things. Roe v. Wade did not secure the right for women to choose what to do with their own pregnancies and their own bodies for all time; and it can be argued that thinking it had is part of what allowed the rise of the right-wing anti-choice movement to erode those rights. The civil rights movement and Affirmative Action clearly did not establish for all time that people of color are equally human beings deserving of all the same rights and privileges as white people; and the failure of comfortable blacks who had achieved a significant measure of success and self-satisfied whites who wanted to be released from cultural guilt to continue the battle for that equality can arguably be said to have allowed the new racism and racial divisions to fester and then erupt.

Second, your self-righteousness will be evidence, for those who disagree, that your position is in fact wrong, and that you are de facto an extremist with whom they don’t have to actually argue about the ideas. If you are a self-righteous radical they can simply call you names, dismiss your ideas as “out of the mainstream,” and wall themselves in with their own self-righteousness to defend against yours.


It is entirely possible for large numbers of passionate, committed, and energetic people shouting at the top of their lungs to be wrong. We are all aware of this when it is a large number of people we disagree with marching in the streets and shouting passionately. We are not so sure when we are doing the marching and shouting. This is because being a member of a large, loud, passionate and committed group is enormously empowering. When we sit in a packed auditorium or stand among a couple of thousand people on a city street; when we see ourselves and all those other people on the evening news or trending on social media, it is easy to believe that we are standing at the vanguard of whatever brave new world we envision. All these people gathered like this, all this passion, all this power can’t be wrong; and anyone who can’t see the rightness of it, who don’t share our vision will surely be swept aside by the irresistible force that is us.

But of course they won’t be. And in a democracy they aren’t supposed to be. In a democracy we live with the idea that majority and might do not make right; and we live also with the risk that what is right will probably take time.

This is not to say that large numbers of passionate and committed people is never a good and important thing. It is. It can be a catalyst for change. But it can also be a catalyst for anarchy. Just as it can empower people to create change; it can also empower those who won’t change to create oppression. When volume, in numbers or in tone, begins to substitute for reasoned argument and measured change, we move toward polarization, division, and confrontation.

Too often these days, it seems that people have forgotten how use their indoor voices, how to type in lower case; and how to listen to the ideas buried beneath the rhetorical cacophony.

We are losing our ability to function as a representative democracy, as a government of, by and for the people because we are losing our idea of “the people.” “The people” isn’t just “us,” it’s “them” also. Our shouting and cursing and name calling and apocalyptic pronouncements of doom or hyperbolic declarations of imminent greatness are threatening to drown us all. It’s time to take a breath, calm ourselves down, and begin again quietly; tell each other in reasoned tones what we fear, what we need, what we believe, and why we’re hurting. And then we need to listen carefully for clues to the way forward together.


Shh . . .

You’re an Un-American, Knuckle-Dragging Nut-Job If You Don’t Agree With This! Why We Need to Cool the Rhetoric.

In PeaceAble on April 22, 2015 at 9:23 am

Facts exist independent of us. Truth does not. We discover facts, but we construct truth. Truth is what we find where the facts and our perceptions intersect.

Thus, in any situation, there may be many truths; and since the facts are often harder to determine than our separate truths, it is those that will most often prevail, for we would sooner reject the facts than change our truth.

When we become polarized over issues that might seem easily resolved if everyone just knew the facts, it is important to remember this simple principle. When you attack my truth, when you force me to defend that which is so important a part of me, then you have just lost the battle to teach me the facts which might lead me to alter that truth on my own, in my own time and my own way.

Ask yourself a simple question. How often have you been convinced to change your mind about something because someone with an opposing point of view called you names, ridiculed you, impugned your honesty, your morality and your intelligence, and in various ways dismissed and dehumanized you? In the face of this kind of onslaught did you suddenly have a revelation that, my god, they’re right and I am wrong? Or did exactly the opposite happen and you became even more adamant about rejecting everything they might have to say on the issue and more convinced than ever that you were right?

This is the state of public discourse in America today. And it’s dangerous.

A democratic society relies on the ability of its citizens to engage in active, free, informed, and reasoned debate about issues. And the more critical the issue, the more passionate the advocacy on opposing sides, the more pressing the need for a solution, and the more important it is for both citizens and their representatives to engage in rational, productive discourse. When even the most minor differences of perception or belief become scandals and crises fueled by unrestrained outrage and immoderate rhetoric, then our ability to function as a democracy is undermined; and compromises, workable solutions, and even the routine functions of government become impossible.

As a progressive, I believe that there is a better way, and I think that progressives have a responsibility to set the tone for a future that is more democratic and less confrontational.

First, let’s stop the use of pointless name-calling and characterization of those whose ideas we oppose. Let’s eliminate from our own language terms such as “repugs” or “rethuglicans.” Let’s not make up “funny” names for our opponents, or stoop to characterizations such as “America’s Dumbest Congressman.” And we can stop creating broad classifications of people based on their position on a single issue. A reasonable person can disagree with the scientific conclusions in one area, without being “anti-science” or a “science denier.” We can speak our truth directly, forthrightly and clearly without resorting to fallacious arguments and dehumanizing tactics. If we can’t stand what Rush Limbaugh is doing, then let’s not imitate him. If actual comedians and satirists who identify with the left want to make fun of right-wing ideas and those who espouse them, fine; but let’s not let it become the go-to strategy for every discussion we get into about important issues.

One other consequence of making these kinds of polarizing and unproductive knee-jerk responses our fallback argument is that we make enemies of ourselves. I recently saw a comment on a post about the issues surrounding childhood vaccines in which the writer lumped “anti-vaxxers,” “right-wing nut jobs,” “science-deniers,” and two or three other things all together in a single rant. That isn’t just unproductive, it is flat out wrong. Only the most fundamental extremists are purely one thing or another. When we start to lump all the things we personally don’t like into these kinds of hybrid evil-doers, we forget that people who are just as passionate as we are about some things disagree with us about others. If we make enemies of them over one issue, how can we expect to work with them on others? This happens at both ends of the spectrum, of course. A writer for a sports magazine suggested reasonable restrictions on firearms and received death threats from people he mostly agrees with about guns. If progressives want to create a genuine coalition around our issues, we need to be willing to accept the kind of diversity of opinions about those issues (and the positive discussions those differences can create), we can’t go into attack mode every time someone strays from what we consider the “correct” position.

Secondly, and I’ve said this before, let’s stop talking about every disagreement as a war on something. We cannot, to paraphrase Einstein, both speak like war and work for peace. And this is true about both the things we have characterized as wars and those characterized that way by our opponents. So let’s stop getting into arguments about a “War on Christianity.” Let’s just say there is no such war, and move on. Let’s stop calling it a “War on Women.” It is a systemic cultural problem that limits women’s free exercise of their rights as citizens and denies them equal access with men to full participation in the privileges, opportunities and responsibilities of our society; but who is the enemy except the culture itself? Cultures change slowly, and we can’t speed it up if we start thinking of major portions of that shared culture as enemies. All that does is reinforce their perception that they are under attack. In wars of rhetoric, just as in wars of military engagement, what would happen if someone like Bill O’Reilly called a war and we simply refused to show up for it?

Let’s get in the habit of taking a breath before we jump into an unproductive argument. Let’s just say no to reposting memes or restating simplistic “bumper sticker” arguments without at least checking them out first to be sure we know the full story, the context, whether the facts are accurately and fairly portrayed, and whether we would, on our own, arrive at the same conclusions. We are entitled to have our own experts on controversial arguments, of course, but we should choose them carefully, expect them to be wrong sometimes, be careful of creating confirmation bias, and be willing to change our minds as our knowledge and understanding changes.

Finally, let’s stop calling for extreme consequences for every insensitive word, every distasteful attitude, or every prejudiced or unenlightened action.   If a clerk in a diner somewhere makes the mistake of posting a rant that goes viral, we don’t need to destroy him, his job, his family and his whole life. That will simply convince him of the rightness of his opinions, If someone lives her life in a way that is different from ours, we won’t change that by “shaming” her publically on social media. All that accomplishes is to drive people into opposing camps and increase polarization, which quickly gets unproductive and completely irrelevant to the real issues. Instead, let’s criticize and say what we believe is wrong about a person’s ideas or actions, not turn those whose minds we would change into martyrs for the extremists we stand against.

And let’s encourage those who disagree with us to do the same things. People, generally, are getting tired of a constant state of high alert over everything. They are worn down by the polarization, the vitriol, the self-righteous outrage, and the intolerance that they are inundated with every day in the twenty-four hour news cycle and the ubiquitous and incessant cacophony of social media. They are dropping out. A democracy functions best when its citizens participate. But that participation is most effective when the culture itself encourages reasoned discussion by an accurately and fairly informed citizenry. Every citizen is not just entitled to a voice, but to have that voice listened to and respected. We can help achieve that by making a greater effort, each of us, to listen to and respect those voices with which we most disagree, even as we act in advocacy for our ideals and in committed opposition to what we see as wrong.

War as Solution and as Metaphor

In PeaceAble on November 25, 2014 at 12:11 pm

Let’s face an uncomfortable truth about ourselves: war is the default, go-to solution for our problems. From the War on Poverty to the War on Terrorism, we turn to war as both metaphor and action as we seek to address our issues. And both ends and the middle of the political spectrum are all complicit in this. The right has the War on Christmas; the left has the War on Women. And war as a metaphor is a powerful way of addressing problems. It heightens awareness and commitment; it brings people together in common cause; it employs powerful language that stirs powerful emotions; when we go to war things get done. But what gets done in war may not be what we really want to get done. There are times when rational people might argue reasonably that war is the best possible solution to some critical problem, but there are important reasons why we ought to stop turning everything into a war.
War requires us to de-humanize the other, and in the process dehumanize ourselves. In order to go to war, we need an enemy; or more to the point, we need “THE enemy.” And the enemy needs to be as simply and graphically defined as possible. Any weakness in our definition of the enemy makes it that much harder to fight them. But the world is never that simple. Human beings are complex creatures, neither all good nor all bad as a rule; but in order to go to war we need to create stark contrasts between ourselves and the “other.” This does neither of us any good. It’s easy to see how this happens in extreme situations. The atrocities being committed by the forces of ISIS, or ISIL, in Iraq and Syria make it easy to condemn the whole force as purely evil. We don’t want to hear about our own complicity in the creation of the Islamic State; we don’t want to really know what motivates them to act so abominably; because to understand them in human terms makes it harder to say “kill them all.” And since they call themselves Islamic, it is easy to extend that to all Islam and all Muslims and all those who might look Muslim and to all those who come from places with beliefs and customs and ways of being that are different from our own. Tragic and horrific events have this effect, and while that does not justify the dehumanization, it at least makes it understandable.
But even in instances of great trauma, dehumanizing the other has the effect of dehumanizing ourselves as well, in at least two ways. First, dehumanizing the other gives me the cover I need to dig into the darkest parts of myself, to howl and snarl and hunt and kill, and employ instincts necessary to the task. I begin to throw rhetorical magnets in the way of my moral compass so that it will point me the way I already want to go. Even when the task itself, such as stopping a great evil, seems necessary, even noble, the dehumanization goes both ways. And that leads to the second self-dehumanization. When we define the enemy, we define ourselves as their enemy, and we invite them to do to us what we are doing to them. It is not possible to say to ourselves, “because the enemy has done these terrible things, then we must do these same or similar or even worse terrible things to them,’ without becoming, in at least some small way, like them. If we see them as less than human because they see us as less than human, how have we improved things, and what are we becoming? Are we not all becoming dehumanized along the way?
Now see what happens when everything becomes a war. Declare that there is a “War on Christmas” and who is your enemy? Suddenly everyone who chooses to wish people a happy holiday becomes the enemy and is dehumanized. And they in turn lump all those who feel even the least bit of a loss of some specialness, some sense of tradition and continuity, who miss what was, into one monolithic hate group and thus dehumanize them as well. Declare that there is a “War on Women” and it is easy to see men as the enemy, or at least for men to believe that that is your intent, and this lumping together of men as the enemy is dehumanizing; so you get the rise of #notallmen, which seeks to turn those with a genuine concern for the really serious issues of violence and inequity and dehumanization women face every day in a male-normative culture into further dehumanized “man-haters.” And there’s no excuse to be found in trying to decide who started it. The question is who’s going to stop it?
Also, war is a violent metaphor that encourages violent behavior. This should, of course, be obvious. Real war is violence. But even using war as a metaphor implies violent behavior, which in turn justifies violent responses. The violence begins rhetorically. Our language escalates first, and the escalation of language leads to escalation of action. And the drumbeat of war drowns out the discussion of alternative solutions, especially those that require compromise and cooperation. Albert Einstein once wrote that “One cannot simultaneously prepare for war and plan for peace.” The military routinely sends “surplus” equipment, the tools of war, to police departments. When police departments begin to treat the business of keeping the peace as a military operation, then they become encouraged to treat the citizenry as the enemy, to dehumanize them, and to act violently in dealing with them. Historically, this has disproportionately affected minorities and the poor, the disenfranchised, because these groups are already dehumanized by our cultural language. If you own a tank, you feel the need to use that tank; and whom will you use it against unless there is an enemy; and who is the enemy? And if you have a tank and are prepared to use it, then drawing a gun and firing it seems almost insignificant by comparison. And if you are a citizen facing that kind of militarized firepower, is it unreasonable to think that you might have to arm yourself, too?
War prepares us to accept things like “collateral damage,” “acceptable losses,” and “the ultimate sacrifice” without measuring the real cost of those things. Every death in war, every person who suffers injuries of any kind is dehumanized by our investment in war as our primary response to conflict. Soldiers who die are turned into heroes for the rest of us, becoming symbols rather than flesh and blood beings. They are held up as support for the heroism and nobility of war. We honor those whose children die fighting wars, “Gold Star Mothers” for example, as though their grief should be tempered by that heroism and nobility; as though we might choose to have a son or daughter die in war. The children of the other, the enemy, however, are not celebrated as heroes. We find ways to mock the enemy dead, even to blame them for their own deaths. Non-combatants who die are simply numbers. In the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, more than 3000 people died. They were overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, Americans. This event was used, is still used, to convince the American people that we are at war. That war led us into Afghanistan and Iraq, and those two wars have caused the deaths, injuries and destruction of lives for tens of thousands of Americans, mostly but not entirely military; and the deaths, injuries and destruction of the lives of more than half a million non-Americans, mostly civilian. When we count the cost of war we often forget the cost of rebuilding communities, nations, and individual lives. And we don’t want to know. We elect to Congress people who want to spend more money on weapons and war, but less on treating the injuries, both physical and psychological, of veterans.
This dehumanization of all involved in war also celebrates and honors warriors, and disparages peacemakers; thus celebrating and honoring war while disparaging peace and those who work for it without war. We have dozens of national, state and local holidays and observances that honor the military, from Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day to days honoring Robert E. Lee or Confederate veterans, to VE Day, D-Day, and Soldiers’ Day. The only national holiday honoring someone who worked for peaceful solutions is Martin Luther King Day, which is still a controversial holiday. In a few places, a day is set aside to honor people like Rosa Parks, also. This is, by the way, not accidental. We begin calling people heroes as soon as they put on a uniform, pledge our nearly unconditional support for them and whatever they do, and give them benefits unavailable to others. We do this because we need to convince them and ourselves that what we are asking them to do, to risk, is always a good thing. When something turns out badly we either don’t talk about it or treat it as an aberration, something that “happens in wars,” but not actually caused by war itself; as in My Lai or Abu Ghraib. Or we blame it on the dehumanized other, the “enemy,” as when students are killed at Kent State or civilians die in raids against the Taliban or Al Qaeda; or when an unarmed person is killed by a policeman. War itself makes these excuses and evasions necessary, because if war were not a good thing, a thing for heroes and people of noble character, then all our soldiers would be simply mercenaries, willing to kill or be killed if the pay is good and the benefits substantial. We need people who are genuinely interested in doing the right thing, in helping; we need people who will commit to the cause and the solution for honest, good reasons. The other side of that is that we consider diplomats and peacemakers as weak, or duplicitous, because we don’t see them at work, because the results of their efforts are less immediate, less dangerous, and less visible than the work of war.
War never leads to peace, nor to lasting solutions. War encourages us to deal with problems in terms of bi-polar, simplistic, winner and loser results that do not address the real issues. If diplomacy takes more than a few months we are quick to call it a waste of time; but a war that drags on for years becomes its own justification. We can’t stop now, before the enemy is defeated completely, before we can declare victory. Compromise is, of course, impossible in war; we either win or lose. If we begin to call it a “War on Christmas” because people want to say “Happy Holidays” or include the recognition of other celebrations during the season, then we won’t be satisfied with anything less than complete surrender. A “War on Coal” precludes a serious attempt to transform our fossil fuel industries, to address climate change. And the constant refrain of war leads us to fight undeclared wars whenever a new problem arises. We get enraged that stores might stay open on Thanksgiving, but offer no long term, reasonable solutions to the needs of those who don’t get paid if they don’t get to work, the more substantial issues of the simultaneous mythologizing and commercialization of our holidays, the wastefulness and inequity evident in our feel-good drives to make sure that people who starve all year round have an enormous Thanksgiving dinner rather than solving the problems of food insecurity. The truth is that reason is the enemy of war. War is always a desperate solution, not a reasonable one.
The culture of war reinforces and recreates itself through our children. We have created a culture of constant war, of crisis. We see enemies everywhere, even among ourselves. Whatever our position on an issue it is the only correct one, the only patriotic or Christian or liberal or conservative one. Our enemies aren’t “real” Americans or Christians or patriots; but they simultaneously represent all that is evil about the groups they belong to. They are Muslims or socialists or fascists or atheists, and they are all thugs or terrorists or criminals. They are gun nuts or ammosexuals or libtards or repugs or feminazis. We are given stark warnings of the disasters that will befall us if “they” aren’t stopped. And this constant cultural reference to “the War on” virtually everything becomes part of the early vocabulary of our children, whom we require to declare their loyalty and allegiance daily and to learn the virtues of neither questioning nor resisting authority, to follow orders. We teach them to beware the others whoever they are, to distrust science, to treat the myths of history as sacred fact and the facts of history as distractions from the unquestioning loyalty that is necessary for the inevitable war. Our culture tells us that we and our enemies are biologically and psychologically predisposed to war, so war is the only possible choice. If we try to teach our children about peaceableness, about learning to live in peace, through acceptance and compromise and reason, we are defeated at every turn by the overwhelming cultural onslaught of the language of war. And the saddest thing is that we are well aware that children left on their own will trust the other, embrace the other, and accept the other as simply human and worthy of their unconditional love. And while it is true that there is risk in that, that there are dangers in the world, the dangers are never as common or abundant as the good. When every risk is a crisis, when every response to controversy is a war, when even the pacifist finds himself using the language of war to describe the struggle, then it is way past time to step back, take a deep breath, and develop a more discerning perspective, a more nuanced and balanced approach.
We cannot change the culture until we change the dominant language, the common and normative images and references at tell us who we are and what we are like. It is time for us to put aside the language and imagery of war as normal and find new, more peaceable ways to talk to ourselves and about ourselves. One good start would be to refuse to cooperate when someone declares a war on something. Let’s, instead, take the time to say what the issues or problems really are. This is especially important for those of us who claim to be progressive and pacifist. We cannot claim to abhor and oppose war if we use the language of war. It won’t be easy, but it is honest; and it is necessary.

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