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When Words Are Used as Weapons

Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh talks with other guests at a White House event on January 13, 2009.

Lately, I’ve become aware of an increase in the amount of kvetching that surrounds me. Whether online, in private conversation, or in public discourse, people seem eager to express their discontent with one thing or another. Rarely do I hear folks expressing an equal measure of praise or satisfaction for the bounty of people, places, or things that they encounter in their daily lives.

I’m sure you hear the cacophony, too: The weather. Stalled traffic. No Wi-Fi here or there. Taxes. Politicians—Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Tea Party members—pick one or all. Immigrants. Old people. Young folks. Minorities. White people. Dare to mention any of these in friendly conversation and I’ll wager a Happy Meal that someone within earshot will pipe up with an angry analysis, typically in more colorful language than it is appropriate to share here.

Before continuing, let me be clear: I am aware that some of you might accuse me of doing it now, and yes—I’m complaining about complaining. At times like this, maybe I’m as guilty as the next guy. But I pray I’m not like that fellow sitting on the back bench of the bus, railing angrily into his cell phone for the rest of us to hear. Really, dude?

While I’m neither Pollyanna nor an irrepressible optimist, I prefer to hear praise rather than complaint. These days, however, it’s hard to come by. To be sure, anyone in my line of work—sharing an opinion, especially on sensitive topics such as race, multiculturalism, or public policy—invites dissenting points of view. But respectful disagreement or debate isn’t the same thing as an angry diatribe. It’s a pity that fewer people seem to know the difference, and this lack of awareness has serious consequences for the quality of civic life.

In his 1993 book Culture of Complaint, journalist and cultural critic Robert Hughes created something of a sensation by observing that American society was “fraying” as a result of polarized views that nearly everyone seems inclined to share with everyone else. He likened it to a drug, calling ubiquitous outrage the “crack of politics—a short, intense rush that the system craves again and again, until it begins to collapse.”

Photographer and journalist Scott London’s review of Hughes’ work offers some keen insights into the writer’s observation that hostile language has a chilling effect on society’s ability to accommodate differences of opinions, as well as diverse groups of people. As London put it, both liberals and conservatives are guilty:

During the 1960s, liberals tried to label every conservative a fascist. Then during the Reagan years conservatives managed to conflate all government intervention in economics with creeping Marxism. Over the past fifteen years, conservatives have succeeded, virtually unopposed, in depicting as left wing, agendas that, in a saner polity, would be regarded as ideologically neutral. This trend has been only exacerbated by the political correctness movement which has given them ammunition by reducing the pragmatic issues of the day to a war of words.

As is the case in any war, truth becomes a casualty. When words are the weapons of choice, combatants lose a sense of proportion as they fling invectives willy-nilly, scoring debate points in a game for which no one is really keeping score and oblivious to the harm that their venom inflicts on the innocent, larger society.

Last week’s National Prayer Breakfast—where President Barack Obama warned a ballroom full of purportedly pious people that religious zealotry has been misused throughout history, not just contemporaneously by Islamic extremists in the Middle East—provides a case in point. “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” the president said. “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

There should be no debate over this. A cursory understanding of world or U.S. history renders President Obama’s comments res ipsa loquitur. But no! My ThinkProgress colleague Jack Jenkins observed that the president’s “embrace of historical fact infuriated some conservatives, many of whom equated his reference to things such as the Crusades to an attack on Christianity.”

This reaction, of course, was to be expected. The contentious nature of politics ensures predictable, knee-jerk reactions to any idea or policy from the loyal opposition. For the most part, television pundits and social media trolls are in the attention-seeking game, and they employ arguments—however inaccurate—that inflame those inclined to share their outrage. That’s why the comments sections of otherwise legitimate news stories quickly devolve into racist, xenophobic, sexist, or just plain mean-spirited rants.

According to a recent report by Demos, a British think tank, racist and derogatory messages are posted on Twitter at a rate of about 10,000 tweets per day—that’s approximately seven every minute. The study’s most remarkable findings concerned the frequent use of offensive speech. For the most part, the researchers found “very few” instances in which the offensive speech was actually threatening.

“A significant proportion of use cases are what we have termed ‘casual use of racial slurs’, which means the term is being used in a way that might not be employed to intentionally cause offense (or where the user is unaware of the connotations of the term) but may be deemed so by others,” the researchers wrote. “The way in which racist language can seep into broader language use and reflect underlying social attitudes is potentially an area of concern.”

In other words, people cavalierly toss out slurs and abusive speech not with the intent to cause physical harm to anyone but in order to bind themselves into a group-think mentality. As their shared superiority is reinforced through slanderous language, they become a part of the in crowd. This isn’t a good thing—far from it. It’s dangerous because it desensitizes people to the harm created by loose lips.

I do not want to censor anyone. I’m not advocating going as far as the burghers in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, who want to ban negative comments on social media. In a society that values free speech, there’s little to be done, or that should be done, to prevent people from expressing themselves.

But there’s a price to pay for all of this negativity. When people speak their minds, they’re showing their true selves, even under the guise of invisibility that social media fosters. Words really do have meanings, and those meanings represent very real attitudes and beliefs. It’s the cumulative effect of those angry little words that undergirds larger public attitudes and behaviors, which in turn affects the large-scale policies that govern us all.

We should choose them well.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.