- Mark Twain
Most people use the word stupid as an epithet to demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, their disapproval with a person and/or idea. As epithets go stupid is quite popular: particularly when we want to be condescending, or perhaps experience a brief surge of smugness in our lives. As we all know.
Below are 4 quotes I gathered from public pronouncements made in the media. The first 3 are from the U.S., the last is from Australia. Opponents to the content of these quotes have all been bitingly critical in response including, in some cases, calling those who have spoken them “stupid”:
"When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
- Donald Trump, Presidential Candidate
"...my point is, God's still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we human beings would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous."
- James Inhofe, Oklahoma Senator
"Marco Rubio brags about wanting to deny victims of rape and incest access to health care or to an abortion. Jeb Bush says Planned Parenthood shouldn't get a penny. Ohio Gov. John Kasich also defunded abortion referral here, in Ohio. I would like these Republican candidates to look the mom in the eye who caught her breast cancer early because she was able to get a screening for cancer, or the teenager who didn't get pregnant because she has access to contraception. Now, extreme views about women - we expect that from some of the terrorist groups. We expect that from people who don’t want to live in the modern world. But it’s a little hard to take coming from Republicans who want to be the president of the United States.”
- Hillary Clinton, presidential candidate
“The leader of the opposition is now in lockstep with Labor’s union masters who are running a campaign of economic treason against our nation’s interests by making dishonest and untrue statements about China’s free trade agreement, directly undermining Australian jobs and Australia’s future prosperity.”
- Julie Bishop, Foreign Affairs Minister, Australia
What do these four quotes have in common? They use highly emotive language to persuade their audience. Words such as “rapist”, “arrogance”, “terrorists”, and “treason” are accusatory, as is the word “stupid” that has been hurled back to describe the authors of these quotes.
All these quotes reflect ideological battles happening around the globe right now. In order to understand why such disrespectful public utterances have so much traction in society, it is important to understand something about the nature of ideological battle. These battles sacrifice any sense of decorum in the interest of one thing alone: victory.
That potential victory can be resisted if we understand some of the arenas ideologies operate in, and how those arenas are manipulated. When that manipulation is successful, it leaves our public discourse in disarray.
The first ideological arena to recognize is that we are in an era of shifting narratives. Narratives are always shifting in society, but a strong argument can be made that they are shifting more rapidly than ever right now because many of the societal institutions we have built up over the years are increasingly unstable (nation states, religions, educational institutions, to name just a few). Shifting societal narratives impact our individual narratives all the time, and those using emotionalized language understand this well. Here is my subjective take on some of the narrative battles lurking beneath the surface in each of the 4 quotes above:
Trump Quote: Security vs Fairness
Inhofe Quote: Religious Faith vs. Planetary Well-Being
Clinton Quote: Women’s Health Rights vs. Right to Life
Bishop Quote: Free Market vs. Worker’s Rights
This description is, of course, partial and arguable - no narrative is adequately condensed down to a single issue, so themes of racism, what defines human life, humanity’s right to planetary resources and other themes are missing. The point here is that the dog whistle people hear when they are exposed to an emotionalize quote from a prominent public figure goes directly to the belief systems they hold, and to the narratives that support that belief system.
The second ideological arena reflected in these 4 quotes is how each encourages tribalism. The worst aspects of tribalism is when a group “circles the wagons” around their belief system, firing outward at anyone not inside. When George W. Bush was seeking war authority in Iraq, his statement that nations and individuals were either “with us or against us”, as well as his definition of perceived opponents as belonging to an “axis of evil” all encouraged divisiveness and separation into ideological camps. So did Barack Obama's references to financial "fat cats" and to the Cambridge police department as having "acted stupidly" when they arrested Harvard professor Henry Gates. This sort of language reinforces ideological belief and makes dialogue much more difficult. If you doubt me, just ask yourself when you read my references to the content quoted above by Bush or Obama and found yourself saying, "...but that's true!"
The third way ideological battles appear in the 4 quotes are the ethical dilemmas each statement represents. Emotionality is easily aroused when language hinting at sensitive ethical issues is used. Some of the ethical questions these quotes trigger:
“How do we treat vulnerable people in our society?”
“How do we keep our nation, and ourselves, safe?”
“How much faith do we have in God to guide our lives?”
“How can we ignore the damage being done to our planet?”
“Does a woman have the right to control her own health/body?”
“What right do any of us have to end a potential life?”
“What is the correct balance between individual economic security and overall national prosperity?”
All 3 of these ideological arenas are in play in the original 4 quotations. All 4 quotations refer to complex issues requiring serious discussion, critical thinking, collaboration where possible, and the courage to try to understand beliefs you oppose. Emotionalized language, however, undercuts all these factors and puts the discourse back into trying to persuade you, rather than having a respectful dialogue with you. Which brings us to another Trump quote:
“I play to people’s fantasies,” he writes in The Art of the Deal, his 1987 memoir. “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”
The emotionalized language of hyperbole is certainly a form of both promotion and exaggeration. But it is anything but innocent. Its' goal is to trigger immediate, impulsive action to defend your belief system. Action that is often shaded by paranoia and fear. As organizational psychologist Chris Argyris points out so clearly with his tool, the Ladder of Inference, there are numerous steps we should take before we act impulsively on important matters. These include noticing how selective we are about the reality we perceive, how many of conclusions we reach are based on assumptions, and how assumptions, when they calcify into beliefs, make dialogue even harder. Recognizing that we too often spring into action when an emotionalized statement triggers us is the primary reason stupid keeps winning. Is this what we want?
In case I’ve made the air around you heavy with this blog post, I want to end it with another tool that Argyris doesn’t mention, but which is a critical component to helping us kickstart constructive conversations with each other. It’s from humorist Dave Barry:
“As Americans, we must ask ourselves: Are we really so different? Must we stereotype those who disagree with us? Do we truly believe that ALL red-state residents are ignorant racist fascist knuckle-dragging NASCAR-obsessed cousin-marrying roadkill-eating tobacco juice-dribbling gun-fondling religious fanatic rednecks; or that ALL blue-state residents are godless unpatriotic pierced-nose Volvo-driving France-loving left-wing communist latte-sucking tofu-chomping holistic-wacko neurotic vegan weenie perverts?''
Perhaps we should stop taking ourselves - and our causes - so terribly seriously and, without compromising our passion, do the work in front of us with tolerance, a willingness to learn, and with a secure grip on our paranoia and fear.