Soundings October 22: The Power of Language in Human Society

Donald Trump has lately embraced the physical assault of a journalist by a congressional candidate in Montana, declaring, at a campaign rally, “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy” and also engaged in what many analysts have rightly described as a tirade of Tweets concerning Stephanie Clifford, known also by her stage name of Stormy Daniels, with whom he stands accused of having an extramarital affair and then paying her hush money to cover it up.[1] In lieu of allowing his attorneys to speak for him after a judge dismissed a case Clifford had filed against him, Trump has chosen instead to engage in a round of public name-calling and epithets that have sought to demean and demoralize her, but which have also drawn attention to the sordid mess of his past and current behavior. And, as John Mulholland, the United States editor of the Guardian newspaper that employs American reporter Ben Jacobs (the victim of Gianforte’s violence) has observed, in embracing Congressman Greg Gianforte’s actions (who was formally convicted of assault), Trump has undertaken

‘an attack on the First Amendment [despite having] taken an oath to defend it. … The President of the United States tonight applauded the assault on an American journalist who works for the Guardian, and his statement ‘runs the risk of inviting other assaults on journalists both here and across the world where they often face far greater threats. We hope decent people will denounce these comments and that the president will see fit to apologize for them.’[2]

It perhaps goes without saying that these remarks by a sitting U.S. chief executive are, so far as I can determine, unprecedented, and that they occurred in the immediate aftermath of the high-profile murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian agents in a consulate of that nation is all the more chilling.[3]

Even though, by now, outrageous outbursts have become commonplace for Trump, I want to argue that Americans should never allow these screeds seeking to erode the rights of targeted individuals and groups for political gain to occur without notice or objection. This is so not only because, laying aside the facts of the issues he has treated, having a president of the United States engage in such lawless, coarse and vulgar language and accusation only degrades him, diminishes his office and, more importantly, provides fodder for those wishing to emulate his squalid anti-democratic example. Meanwhile, such behavior also cheapens and undermines the standard of the country’s political conversation generally. The fact that many Republican Party leaders and Trump’s followers not only tolerate or say nothing about this behavior, but also often encourage and cheer it (as his audience did in Montana), suggests that they care little for its long-run effects on the rule of law in society, or for the presidency (or other institutions) or, indeed, for its implications for their own civil rights.

But assuming this posture misses more than what Trump’s example does for the level of discourse in our society. Indeed, as Trump rages and excoriates any and all who provide inconvenient facts concerning his proclamations, behavior or otherwise disagree with him, he not only disgraces himself and his office, but also debases any who would support him. As he manipulates language and decries critics who would challenge the truth of his remarks or the implications of his decisions and policies, and rails falsely against all manner of scapegoats to curry emotional fervor and power, Trump daily demonstrates the capacity of language to destabilize and undermine essential fundaments of our society.

This is so because it is through words that individuals create meaning, and democratic leaders are critically important agents of language for their societies. As Leszek Kolakowski has argued,

The word does not operate just as a substitute for an object in certain circumstances, and it may not just represent or replace an object: the object itself is perceived necessarily through mediation of the word, that is, it is provided with meaning in the process of perception.  Hence, not only is the word necessary to reproduce reality, it is reality’s coproducer.[4]

In this vital sense, Trump’s decision to use language to obscure, lie and degrade is creating its own (now patently lawless) reality for those willing to countenance his behavior. While the word accords humanity infinite creative possibilities as it makes meaning, it also carries within itself that same measure of destructive potential, and for the same reason.      

Put differently, language innately possesses the power to support democratic norms regarding the dignity of the individual and the equality of all, or it can be employed to attack those values. In the first case, architects of the word choose to employ it in a way that buoys and supports human and civil rights and disciplines humans’ propensity to other. In the second case, which is Trump’s chosen course, leaders employ the power of language to undermine the rights of targeted individuals and groups and to unleash fear, loathing and hatred in the name of power. This reality both highlights the dominance of the word and the starkness of why no friend of freedom should support anyone who uses language to sully and humiliate others in efforts to seek to profit economically or politically; that is, one who uses it to obtain or maintain wealth or power.

It will suffice here to point to two additional examples of Trump’s use of language to illustrate this broader contention. The first is his lies and ongoing attacks addressed at his former political opponent, Hillary Clinton, and the second is his persistent degradation and fear mongering concerning immigrants and refugees. Let me be clear. In all of these cases—Jacobs, Clifford, Clinton and immigrants—Trump has routinely lied egregiously to his followers and simultaneously sought to inflame their hatred and animosity by employing language aimed at encouraging them to despise a targeted individual or group

In former Secretary of State Clinton’s case, Trump continues to claim falsely at his campaign rallies that she should be imprisoned for wrongdoing. He leads his followers in chants of “lock her up,” when there is no basis for such an assertion, and irrespective of the fact that she is irrelevant to his administration or its record two years after her electoral defeat. Nonetheless, Trump has used Clinton as a foil in his language to provide his supporters a target for manufactured ire and has embraced complete fabrications as he has done so. His rhetoric is untruthful, belittling and destructive. But for his followers, who scream the requested chant, it is alluring, even as it others an individual abhorrently and without reason. Trump has used language to seduce his supporters to hate and to lead them to embrace an epistemological nihilism, even as his efforts have deliberately sought to undermine the rights, at least in the eyes of his followers, of the individual he falsely targets.

Trump began his campaign by suggesting that the country needed protection from hordes of “rapist” immigrants and that he would lead efforts to ensure that Americans were kept safe from this menace. Empirically, this was an outright lie, but that fact has not prevented him from repeating it ad nauseum to the nation’s citizens. More, he has complained of immigrants from “s**t-hole countries,” whose members are of a different race than him and has implied on more than one occasion that those emigrating to this nation are “animals.” This rhetoric appears to be designed consciously to rob those so described of their dignity and humanity and thereby their civil and human rights. Trump has targeted them relentlessly with demeaning “othering” language to encourage his followers to fear and hate, and he has done so on no basis other than their perceptible difference of appearance, religion or country of origin.

Each of these examples underscores the seductive power of language and its destructive possibility.  Each of them also points to how a demagogue has used the word to rouse his supporters to loathe targeted individuals and groups, regardless of the facts at issue.  As noted above, language possesses infinite capacity to destroy or create and Trump is wielding it ceaselessly to attack opponents, to undercut the idea of any truth beyond his claims concerning an issue and to demonize all who would dare oppose him. In all of these ways, but most viciously and perilously in the Jacobs example, in which he actively embraced physical violence against an innocent citizen, he daily illustrates the overwhelming power of the word to co-produce social meaning and the dangers of its use to exploit and humiliate in the name of power. Unfortunately, there is no easy antidote for this deadly poison. It must be stopped and rolled back by the good sense and devotion to freedom of those at whom it is aimed. There is no other recourse, no other failsafe, in a democratic society. One must hope that Americans collectively ultimately will ensure that outcome.

Notes

Kim, Seung Min and Felicia Sonmez, “At Montana Rally Trump Praises Congressman for Assaulting Reporter,” The Washington Post, October 18, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/at-montana-rally-trump-praises-congressman-for-assaulting-reporter/2018/10/18/1e1d0d1e-d304-11e8-8c22-fa2ef74bd6d6_story.html?utm_term=.86a8934d9e3c. Accessed October 19, 2018.; Sullivan, Eileen, and Maggie Haberman, “Trump Calls Stormy Daniels ‘Horseface’ in Gloating Twitter Post,” The New York Times, October 16, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/16/us/politics/trump-stormy-daniels-horseface-women.html. Accessed October 16, 2018.

[2] Kim and Sonmez, “At Montana Rally Trump Praises Congressman for Assaulting Reporter.”

[3] Harris, Shane, Souad Mekhennet, John Hudson and Anne Gearan, “Turks tell U.S. officials they have audio and video recordings that support conclusion Khashoggi was killed,” The Washington Post, October 11, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/turks-tell-us-officials-they-have-audio-and-video-recordings-that-support-conclusion-khashoggi-was-killed/2018/10/11/119a119e-cd88-11e8-920f-dd52e1ae4570_story.html?utm_term=.2c08722cd2d2. Accessed October 18, 2018.

[4] Kolakowski, Leszek. Modernity on Endless Trial, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 34.