The subversive power of being accurate in an age of hyperbole.
Over the 20th Century, the precise use of language helped shape our understanding of the problems around us, the solutions needed to solve them, and the opportunities ahead.
When Trump sounds off in racist and wildly inaccurate Tweets, it matters. When climate change deniers in positions of power talk about “belief” instead of about “evidence”, it matters. When right-wing pundits lament the loss of the imaginary ‘melting pot’ of America rather than seeing a more painful and complicated truth, it matters. Yet there’s another problem that has grown exponentially with the rise of Trump and his fast and loose use of language. It’s one that affects those of us on the left of the political spectrum.
Yet there’s another problem that has grown exponentially with the rise of Trump and his fast and loose use of language. And it’s one that affects those of us on the left of the political spectrum.
We needn’t look much further than the love of quoting Martin Niemöllerwith those who oppose Trump’s stance and policies on immigration (“First they came for the socialists…”). We have a problem at our southern border with immigration, both sides agree. It’s a complicated problem that bedeviled Obama as much as it has Trump. And yet, while those of us on the left are critical of those on the right for saying things like the U.S. will be “overrun” with immigrants, or that “most” of those coming are “criminals and rapists” (both statements are categorically false), it seems that these days liberals have decided to fight imprecise language with their own imprecision.
Too many of us are obliterating useful and necessary distinctions in service of an emotional appeal. Too many of us are being hyperbolic with our language in a way that is undermining our position — and our values.
Few words carry the weight of “genocide”, “holocaust”, and “concentration camp”, because those words point to something very real and horrific that happened on a large scale not so long ago. And that’s happened in recent memory, like in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The comparisons of Trump to Hitler started not long after his election. These days, “concentration camp” is being applied to the internment camps at our southern border. Yet they’re not the same thing — to use concentration camp and internment camp interchangeably highlights either our ignorance of history or our unwillingness to be honest.
Liberals have decided to fight imprecise language with their own imprecision.
Fact: the U.S. is not running concentration camps on our southern border. This fact doesn’t make the problem of internment less concerning or less morally objectionable.
Concentration camps were designed to create the slave labor that fueled a war machine, while also perpetuating a genocidal goal. If we tell the Jewish grandson of an Auschwitz survivor that “the same thing” is happening in the United States today, we dishonor the truth of what happened in Germany during the Second World War. And when we exaggerate what’s happening to migrant families (who are being held in deplorable and unforgivable conditions) we undermine both the actual problem and the ability to create solutions that can fit. By our exaggeration, we gain nothing and we lose a great deal.
This is not a problem contained merely to Trump and his policies. It’s part of a larger phenomenon where the Left has begun to remove distinctions in language.
Saying someone is a ‘survivor’ of sexual assault, for instance, helps to frame the conversations in a way that is mindful of and more helpful to the actual victims, and something virtually everyone wholeheartedly endorses. However, when people who have endured sexual harassment call themselves ‘survivors’ as well, it creates a problem of discernment — a problem in language. When we have a room of ‘survivors’ that can include those raped at gunpoint and gang-raped in jail, as well as someone who had an unsolicited sexual advance, we’ve now watered down the word ‘survivor’ to mean something less than it might. We’ve lost some important distinctions.
It’s not that sexual harassment isn’t a problem. Or that it isn’t part of the larger problem we’ve seen in this country, a problem highlighted by some of the strengths of the #metoo movement. Calling those who have endured sexual harassment by the name “survivor” highlights the larger problem — but it does so at a cost.
Even in less emotionally and politically-charged areas we can see this phenomenon at play. Some have requested that we stop using the terminology of “engendered” romance; we’re advised to drop “boyfriend” and “girlfriend”, and “wife” and “husband” and instead use the gender-neutral word, “partner”. This is a laudable goal meant to make life easier on a non-binary and non-straight minority, yet it removes the distinction between a more casual relationship (boyfriend or girlfriend) and a more serious commitment (wife or husband). Distinctions, once again, are lost.
More concerning, there have been well-documented stories about how college students these days support free speech — until it infringes on their values. This is hardly the first piece to point out how problematic this is, but it is the logical extension of the use of imprecise and hyperbolic language.
In our culture, it’s common to find references to the idea that words or images can be a form of violence.
In our culture, it’s common to find references to the idea that words or images can be a form of violence. Some might even say the use of sleek, attractive bodies is a form of violence in advertising.
Because of this, in response, censorship and actual violence would seem not only justifiable but moral. Yet words and images can’t be “violent” unless they are calling for overt violence, ie, advocating attacks against others. Words or images may do other things, such as create hostile environments, be part of abusive patterns, perpetuate dominator power structures, etc. Yet that’s not the same thing as “violence”, and it doesn’t give the accusor the immediate moral superiority that justifies the lazy response of censorship or refusing to engage in dialog and debate.
We run into the same confusion with microaggressions and overt aggressions, with some now wondering if microaggressions are worse thanthe overt racism and institutional violence of the KKK. This is an injustice to those who endured and ultimately triumphed over segregation’s darkest points of history, from lynchings to sham trials to the denial of the post-War credit boom and access to education.
When we lose the precision of language and let hyperbole take over, we undermine ourselves and the values that helped move our world to embrace more liberal ideas in the last 100 years— by accurately defining the problems we faced.
While we can and should heed the words of Martin Niemöller, there’s also the even simpler wisdom of Aesop. For when we cry wolf prematurely, we may find that when the real wolves come calling, no one knows how to recognize them.
Read the article on Medium.