In the aftermath of Dylann Storm Roof’s shooting of nine parishioners there has been a lot of discussion as to what to call the act – “an accident” or “an act of terrorism.” Much of the criticism arising from the coverage focuses on the initial response of many news outlets that gave Roof the benefit of the doubt, portraying him in a tender light, much in the same way as fellow bowl-cut wearing, mass-murdering Adam Lanza (of Sandy Hook fame, for those who may have forgotten) was.
Yet, if you think that how the media characterized Roof’s actions is particularly important, or underwritten solely by institutionalized racism, you are not quite right. The real problem is the domination of rhetoric by the American sensationalist right within political discourse. It is a rhetoric, or perhaps better put the development of a language, that seeks to dominate based on fears that are far more wide spread than a few racial tropes.
One only needs to scan Michelle Malkin’s twitter feed to get a primer of the dog whistle terms that the American sensationalist right have developed in order to create a lexicon of malice towards any and all whom they despise or even mildly dislike. (Before those on the right get defensive, I'm not putting you down; I'm focusing on you because you are far, far better at this game then anyone else.) By focusing only on Roof’s actions and how to characterize them, we forget that there is a whole language that had been developed effectively by conservative commentators which has led to their success in controlling and dominating narratives as they are presented in the media, even in venues that are not traditionally favorable to them (take, for example, the mainstream media’s long term insistence on the term “illegal immigrant” or “entitlements”).
What is worse, the American left, center, and non-sensational right have failed to effectively contest such rhetoric, which has been a mainstay in American politics ever since Ronald Reagan’s evocation of the “Welfare Queen.” With the Charleston, South Carolina shooting, it might seem that some in the white media have awoken to its failure to appropriately represent actions based on the demographics of the actor involved.
But, such concerns are hardly news to people of color who have consistently seen people who look like us demonized by the press and politicians, labeled as “thugs,” “hoods,” “illegals,” or “terrorists” – amongst many, many other things – words that have undoubtedly racially charged undertones to them the majority of the time they are employed in the contemporary setting. Yet the American sensationalist right is effective in brushing off such charges by making a normative claim that the words aren’t charged and must be taken at face value. They learned the tried and true lessons of William Randolph Hearst well and have mastered them in an era where no one has figured out how (or is willing) to contest their mudslinging. (And, no, it’s not a question of slinging mud back.)
Judging from the anger and comments from key figures on the right, including many GOP presidential hopefuls (or better said for many, “shot-in-the-dark-fuls”) like Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Lindsey Graham, and the NRA, I would like to think that the pressure to attack such misuse of language is threatening to the American sensationalist right. But, that would be stupid. The reluctance to characterize the atrocious acts of white people be it police officers who abuse their power, shooters like Roof or Lanza, or the soldiers who kill for no good reason, comes from the American sensationalist right’s unwillingness to cede the throne of rhetorical dominance that it currently occupies.
Conservative commentators have tried and true strategies to reassert their rhetorical dominance by using emotive terms that (have come to) resonate with the masses, casting critical narratives aside by re-characterizing such narratives in terms which are misleading and flatly stating that such critical narratives are not only wrong or idiotic but also “un-American.” The American sensationalist right has come to own the concept of what is “American” with a degree of authority that the left and center, in particular, has consistently failed demonstrate.
This is the principal reason why political discussions veer to the right at the national stage. The language we use today to talk about politics irrespective of our ideological starting point is steeped in rightest ideology. That is the reason why Michelle Malkin told her friend AJ Delgado, a conservative columnist for the Miami Herald, not to worry that “this too shall pass” after the latter questioned whether or not Root was white (as if it even mattered!) and was lambasted for her views on Twitter. Unfortunately, Malkin is probably right.
When confronted with the terms like “labor union,” many casual American viewers have been led to conjure up images of socialism, anti-capitalism, and the erosion of American values. The same holds true when they hear the term “thug” and begin to think of blacks or minorities inside urban ghettos. Think too of terms like “terrorism,” “feminism,” “liberal,” “family values,” or “social justice warriors,” all of which convey an array of figurative meanings efficiently and effectively when uttered by conservatives – and often even when uttered by their ideological opponents. These terms have become terms that describe impending doom or threat to the USA as “we” – those who enjoy the status quo – know and love it.
Given the power of language, what can we – as people who want to have productive conversation – do? If the world is cast in binary terms of black and white or right and wrong, it may be impossible to contest views at the poles. The project – and it is a long term project – is to demand linguistic integrity and contest the definitions and implications that have been accorded to certain emotive words as they are expressed in forums between the poles. We cannot live in a society where speaking like this is acceptable. By speaking like this, we create casts of people. We mislabel people and their actions, no matter how good or bad even when they are exactly the same. When we do this, we cannot have good policy. By creating castes, policy advanced will necessarily be asymmetric and ineffective at building a better, stronger society.
Let me be clear: I am not calling for political correctness, as some on the American sensationalist right might point out. I am calling for the left, center, and the right to start building a value-neutral language that bridges and includes rather than separates and divides people, regardless of their ideology, though I realize this is unlikely because emotive language sells. I am asking for is for the betterment of all people who live in the US – citizens and denizens – alike. I am asking for just and equal treatment of people regardless of the race, national origin, gender, creed, sexual orientation, or any other thing that can cast a person unjustly aside. I am asking for those who can to take charge of the language of politics, to contest the underlying hatred many of the terms employed, and to demand accountability from those who insist on using such terms. I am asking that going forward, that those who care about society really pay attention to what they say, the terms they use, and what they publish. It will be hard but it must be done. Language is a powerful tool and it is the best way to influence the way people think. Accordingly, it is time to reclaim the way we speak.