Sunday, November 20, 2016

Please avoid vague, ambiguous, inflammatory buzzwords

There’s been a lot of talk recently about why our country is so divided and what we can do to create a healthier political climate.  I have lots of ideas on this, many of which I have written about before on this blog (even long before Trump began his ugly campaign). Today, I will expand on just one of those topics in particular: how to avoid talking past one another.

Part of the challenge of discussing politics with people who disagree with you is that in addition to differences in values, information and experiences, people also have different mental dictionaries.  Certain words in our political discourse can mean vastly different things to different people, which makes it difficult to find an agreeable starting point from which any conversation could proceed. My advice for those hoping to have productive conversations with the other side is to spot such words, refrain from using them as much as possible, and clarify which meaning is intended if they are used.  This is especially important for words that can be perceived as insults and spark defensive reactions in others.

A few examples: “socialist,” “isolationist,” “radical,” “corrupt”.  These words each have a vaguely negative association.  But they’re also very broad; each could describe a wide range of different beliefs and behaviors, some of which are much more offensive to the average American than others.  Most Americans would reject full-blown Soviet or Marxist style socialism – but they rather like certain programs (like Social Security) that have socialist elements. Most Americans think we should trade with the world and sign international treaties and conduct diplomacy and defend our allies when they are attacked, but far fewer would object to scaling back our interventions abroad.  Almost all Americans abhor corruption in principle, but if campaign finance disputes are any indication, they don’t always agree on what it looks like in practice.

For decades, hyper-partisan people have strategically used words like these to describe the other side, without specifying which severity-level of the insult they are alleging, nor even acknowledging that there’s any nuance to the terms at all. The strategy essentially allows the speaker to spread misinformation and hyperbole without technically having said anything demonstrably false. By exploiting the ambiguity of such broad terms, partisans can rally people who feel angered or threatened by the most severe meaning, and then piggyback off the moral outrage produced by such offensive connotations to advance their political aims.  And of course, our increasingly sensationalist media eats it right up.  Over the short term, it can be quite an effective strategy. (Socrates might have called this “sophistry”: a method of argumentation that deceptive and unhelpful towards the pursuit of truth, but nevertheless carries great rhetorical effect with a crowd.)

Over the long term, though, using these buzzwords so flippantly has catastrophic consequences for the constructiveness of our discourse.  First, it causes confusion and anger on both sides, which hampers our ability to truly listen to and understand people with different opinions.  Second, overusing these words makes them almost meaningless, which eventually causes people to tune-out; this deprives activists of the lexicon they need to draw attention to important underlying issues.  And thirdly, this mass indifference in turn creates a “boy who cried wolf” syndrome, where cases that actually ARE the most-severe-possible version of the buzzword, and actually DO warrant moral outrage, are met with a shrug and a yawn.

Nowhere is this clearer than it is with perhaps the most ambiguous and widespread political attack word of modern times: racist.

I have called Donald Trump racist on several occasions. I do not retract it; it seems clear to me that Trump and most his supporters are driven in part by white resentment towards minorities, or at least by a statistically unfounded distrust of them.  It also seems abundantly clear to me that whatever his motivation, and however innocuous his intent, his policies will worsen the de facto conditions of racial oppression.  By my understanding of the word, that’s enough to qualify him as a racist man.

And yet, I found myself feverishly nodding along with every word of this fantastic post by Scott Alexander. It is long but worth it; a meticulous, compelling, 8,000 word smackdown of the apoplectic racial hyperbole that surrounded Donald Trump from the moment he announced his candidacy.  If you read nothing else about politics this week, follow that hyperlink; conservatives, because you will want to stand up and applaud, and liberals because you might just need a reality check.  In case you don't follow my advice, here's a one-sentence summary: the exaggeration of Donald Trump’s racism over the past year has been absolutely unreal, and almost completely unchecked. Too many people (myself included) let it slide because it was an election year, and he was the bad guy, and we didn’t want to make it seem as if we were at all sympathetic to him or his policies.  That was cowardly of us.

You can call me privileged until you’re blue in the face, but it won’t change the truth that not all racism is equally horrid.  The preference for a tougher criminal justice system is not akin to the explicit belief that some races are superior to others.  Anxiety about immigrants from certain Muslim majority nations, in which we have been fighting wars for decades, is less reprehensible than Nazi-style anti-Semitism.  If you’re going to define racism so broadly as the left has chosen to define it, the tradeoff to that is you can no longer demand people respond to the entire, growing list of things you call racist with the same level of outrage they formerly reserved for Klansmen lynch mobs.  The larger and larger your conception of institutional racism becomes, the more ethically distinct behaviors it encompasses.  Those distinctions matter, and glossing over them is counterproductive.


This doesn’t mean you can’t call racism racism.  Just like economics and foreign policy and corruption, racism is important and needs to be talked about.  Sometimes you can’t discuss these topics without using the overused word in question, and I’m not suggesting we forego those conversations just to prevent confusion or offense.  Just remember that for the conversation to be worth having in the first place, for it to be at all constructive, the parties to the conversation need to settle on a fixed, mutual understanding of the terms they use before they go on using them.  

Don’t be a sophist.  Be a responsible steward of the American political lexicon, and isolate the thing you are referencing from whatever additional baggage its label might imply.

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