The 2016 election is now in full swing, which means that we’re going to be treated to the same political rhetoric as usual, but more of it. If you want sweetness and light, look elsewhere.
For the rest of us, we’d do well to hone our senses and understand the different kinds of name-calling out there. That way, we won’t fall prey to the caricature that one side is largely responsible for invective, and we’ll be able to spot verbal abuse even when it’s “high-minded” as opposed to vulgar.
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1. “Subhuman" and “Disgusting”
Politicos routinely dehumanize their opponents. Whether the phrase is “subhuman mongrel,” “troglodyte,” "Neanderthals,” or even “pigs in a blanket,” the suggestion is that the target is less than a person. Such language suggests that they can be treated with less than the respect that people deserve.
A variant of this is describing people as disgusting, as something foul that should be scraped up and thrown away. Good examples are the way Republicans are called “Scum of the Earth,” and the way Mark Levin frequently refers to his opponents as “puke.”
Unfortunately, there are cases where – after being denigrated as something less than human that should be thrown away – some people have been treated as exactly that.
2. Straw Men and Caricatures
Maybe the most common thing that politicos do is misrepresent their opponents’ political views. If you take someone’s reasonable position – “We’re spending too much money on roads” – and twist it just a touch – “They believe we shouldn’t spend any money on roads!” – you can make them seem ridiculous.
But, since you’ve falsified what your opponent believes, you’re really just refuting a fake position; that is, knocking over a straw man.
We see this over and over: Bernie Sanders says he wants to introduce a universal, single-payer health care system, so Chelsea Clinton accuses him of “dismantling Medicare;” people who are opposed to illegal immigration are caricatured as being altogether anti-immigrant; President Barack Obama is accused of “giving” Iran a nuclear weapon, despite the fact that he was the one who deployed the Stuxnet virus, and the Iran nuclear deal has (at least in the short term) significantly stunted Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
While the slew of political fact-checkers out there are of some help in fighting these caricatures, even they can’t keep up with the volume. We all just have to be eternally vigilant.
3. ”Evil" and/or "Stupid"
It’s frustrating when we believe something strongly – as with political and moral issues – and then run into someone who disagrees with us. We typically resort to one of two derisive explanations for their divergent opinion.
The first is to conclude that they must be ignorant of what’s right. But, since the truth is just so obvious (to us, anyway), our language has to capture the depth of their ignorance: they’re “divorced from reality;” “morons;” “brain-dead;” or “delusional.” In other words, we slur them as being mentally deficient.
The second is to conclude that they’re smart enough to know what’s right, but that they choose to do what they know is wrong. In other words, we demonize them: we say they want to destroy the world (or maybe just the country); that they don’t believe in helping others in need; that they don’t want other people to be free, and so forth. There are any number of ways to (falsely) describe people as choosing to do evil.
4. “They Don’t Care About Facts, Reason, Logic, or Truth”
But there’s a more finessed way to accuse your political opponents of being both stupid and evil: accuse them of choosing stupidity in the name of evil.
For example, politicos often say that “facts don’t matter” to their opponents; they stick to a position “regardless of evidence;” they’re living in a “fact-free zone;” they’re “anti-science, anti-factual,” etc. Others go further, saying their opponents have adopted the “big lie” theory of the Nazis, where the more you repeat a lie, the more plausible it becomes.
Funnily enough, neither Adolf Hitler nor Joseph Goebbels ever advocated using a “big lie”; rather, they accused other people of using big lies against them. Ironic, huh?
Politics is concerned with the well-being of the nation. So, naturally, one of the preferred ways of demonizing opponents is to accuse them of siding against the country.
There are plenty of ways to question someone’s patriotism: call them “unpatriotic” or “anti-American”; accuse them of wanting to weaken the country, or refusing to defend it; praise the “real” parts of America (as opposed to the fake ones); suggest that they put party before country. “Treason,” “traitorous,” and “betray” are also words that serve the purpose, along with the ubiquitous “take back America” campaign slogan.
Name-calling runs rampant in U.S. politics, and it’s hardly limited to one side of the political spectrum. The more we denigrate each other as evil or unpatriotic, the less prepared we’re going to be for those moments of crisis when, all of a sudden, we need to trust and depend on each other.
Politics should make us better people, not worse. When you hear this kind of rhetoric, head the other direction.
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