In the U.S., words are being used to divide us between warring camps of liberals and conservatives. Words can be either powerful or controlling. When words are fear-based, generate feelings of hate, and promote separation and divisiveness, they are controlling. When words are love-based, generate feelings of empathy, and promote a sense of community and connectedness, they are powerful. One strategy is to make positive words negative, so we no longer have a vocabulary to discuss love, empathy or connectedness.
With her permission, this series of articles incorporates segments of a speech about polarizing talk given by Kathryn Rudd, a linguist who has studied the manipulative language used by fascists in interwar Germany and by communists in post-World War II East Germany. I invite you to watch the following segment before or after reading today's article.
Stop Polarizing Talk Presentation, Part 4 of 6 (12.11 min)
Conservative talk show host, Michael Savage, calls President Obama names like "Communist vermin, " a "Neo-Nazi," and a "Facist Maxist Communist." This is part of a strategy to blame Obama and his supporters for all of our problems. Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, are the scapegoat.
Some talk show hosts are more extreme than others. The common theme among conservative hosts is that when the country is rid of Obama's influence, the world will be a better place, while telling us little about what their vision of a better world looks like. When President Bush was in office, liberal talk show hosts used him as the scapegoat.
Scapegoating is the strategy of laying blame on one individual, or one group of people, for a wide range of complex problems. These problems might include unemployment, naturally occurring change or external threats. Provable cause and effect is not required. The goal is to set up a clear divide between the "good people" and the "bad people."
This is not a new phenomenon. Dividing complex people into simple opposing camps was a tactic used to establish, then maintain, the totalitarian states of both the right and the left during the last century. Hitler's arch enemy was the Jews. Stalin's arch enemy was the capitalists.
A related strategy is stereotyping. Here, complex, rich individuality is made into a narrow and generic "the other," using impersonal, derisive images. The goal is to make one's opponents despicable, both as individuals and as a group.
A liberal blog cited by Kathryn Ruud described its opponents as " right wing toothless redneck Bible-thumping trailer trash." Rush Limbaugh described the Obama administration as "the most diabolical people who have led this country in my lifetime. They are sick, mentally unstable. I don't know who their friends are anymore." Respect and civility are set aside in the interest of unbridled attack.
A more sinister polarizing strategy is the manipulation of key moral concepts in order to alter the value of key words. For example, the Nazis used terms like ruthless, brutal, and fanatical as positive attributes. The effect was to drain these words of their humanizing power. People who continued to use words like empathy, kindness and tolerance in a positive way were dismissed as being weak, turning reality on its head.
While this linguistic manipulation is not a prevalent strategy in the U.S., a recent example is found in Rush Limbaugh, during the health care debate, calling liberals "compassion fascists." The effect can be to diminish the duty to be compassionate, and being unfeeling can then be seen as good and moral. In the minds of some people, this could sanction the release of feelings of hostility and meanness otherwise held in check by the word's true meaning.
By far the most prevalent labeling of "the other" being used today is the strategy of calling opponents whiners and cry babies by both the left and the right. To question the status quo or raise the issue of something needing to be addressed is dismissed as of no importance, a childish, immature thing to do. Hitler also used this strategy, calling elected parliamentarians babblers and whiners.
These strategies of polarization are a reflection of the mindset of duality. The farther we stray into duality, the less Oneness there is in our lives. The last time duality was taken to these extremes in the U.S. was during the era of Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, when "patriotism" was used as an excuse to destroy people's lives. It was a dark moment in American history.
In recent years, I have found political discourse among people with different views more difficult than in the past. The angry words used by these talk show hosts are making their way into our discourse. In a number of circles, including among certain family groups, we have a tacit agreement that politics is not a topic open for discussion. How, in such times, do we teach our children about keeping democracy safe?
Also posted on GenuineJustice.com.