This series of articles is considering the growing polarization of political speech in the U.S. 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. Using words to evoke fear in order to control is on the rise.
Kathryn Ruud, a linguist who has studied the manipulative language used by fascists in interwar Germany and by communists in post-World War II East Germany, has analyzed this U.S. trend. With her permission, this series of articles incorporates segments of a speech about polarizing talk given by Kathryn. I invite you to watch the following segment before or after reading today's article.
Stop Polarizing Talk Presentation, Part 2 of 6 (10.54 min)
When we watch the "talking heads" on TV, rudely interrupting each other, putting one another down, raising their voices, we are spectators to a word wrestling match designed to entertain as it plays on our fears. Humor is used derisively, to demean and impugn. It's part of the sport. The "good" side is not hard to distinguish from the "outsiders," and the host's job is to be sure we get emotionally hooked rooting for his side.
Is this something we should be concerned about? Considering how deeply divisive some of the rhetoric used in these word fights is, and the lessons history teaches us about where this can lead if it goes unchecked, we need to stay alert. It has gotten bad and it is getting worse.
Kathryn Ruud uses a Glenn Beck ad to demonstrate how polarizing political messaging and sales are mixed together, inciting fear of political opponents to sell wares. Glenn pitches gold, saying he reads the news and "we've got a bunch of radical Marxist revolutionaries fundamentally transforming our country. . . . Marxism doesn't work. Never has, never will. Marxism ends in bread lines and death camps. . . . Have you thought of buying gold? . . . Somebody needs to have something left to start all over again."
The thought of a popular media personality equating the Obama administration with Marxism and death camps is so outrageous, it is easiest to just dismiss it. But if people buy into the proposition that the administration is the enemy and is as evil as Glenn says, some may be convinced to undertake action against the administration and its supporters that they otherwise would never consider.
If enough people are infected with hatred, they can be manipulated to unite as an angry mob. Excited by the attack, they will abandon their individual moral compass to the crowd mentality, believing they are not accountable in that environment. It has happened before to people not all that different from us.
In the Virginia Holocaust Museum, there are photos of Jews in Poland, laying on the ground in front of their homes as their gentile neighbors pumped water into their rectums with garden hoses until their bodies burst. This behavior didn't come out of the blue. It was incited by Hitler's polarizing speech that convinced them their Jewish neighbors were less than human. Looking at the photos it is clearly the attackers who had lost touch with their humanity.
It is hard to imagine such a thing ever happening again, but the fact language similar to that used to incite these attacks is again being used should give us pause. That MSNBC and several other liberal media outlets are joining in the polarization of our nation only increases the danger.
Kathryn points out that conservative media pundits like Glenn Beck would have us believe that totalitarianism is a phenomenon of the left. They portray libertarians and conservatives as the moderate middle. What they fail to mention is that, in modern history, totalitarianism has had two distinct roots, the right and the left.
It was the totalitarianism of the right in Nazi Germany that was the most controlling ever. It controlled not only the military, the economy and the media, but personal and family life, as well. People had to guard what they said to their own spouse and children for fear they could be reported and arrested. Death camps and Nazis became synonymous. When the Nazi movement began, no one thought it would lead to that.
We do not have a totalitarian state in the U.S., and hopefully we never will. But our present immersion in polarizing political speech is disturbing, for it makes it easier for that to happen. If we are consumed with fear of "the other," we may hardly notice, until it is too late.
Also posted on GenuineJustice.com.