Last week, Fox News commentator Tammy Bruce made headlines for calling a 10-year-old child a “snowflake.” The derogatory term – used to make a person second-guess their emotions or needs – crossed one of the few lines we still have in public discourse because the child was autistic. Thus, those emotional needs Bruce lambasted were justified.
However, had this child not been autistic, Bruce likely would have gotten away with her reductionist name-calling. In fact, name-calling, which is bullying in its simplest terms, has become so commonplace that no one bats an eye when such attacks are made, not even against children. This social acceptance of name-calling, of bullying in public discourse, is beginning to tear apart our society.
The idea that language usage impacts society is not a new concept. Aristotle believed language could shape policy more effectively than facts. And today, we recognize how language can advance an agenda quickly. Look at Winston Churchill, a statesman-turned-Prime Minister whose famous orations led England through World War II. Consider Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose speeches built a movement of social resistance, or even simpler, the political slogans that have championed candidates.
However, the use of words has become its own monster over the past year.
Last year, then-candidate Donald Trump turned heads with his attacks on political correctness. Those demonstrating any reserve in or respect for language were accused of wasting America’s time. This led to the embrace of terms that were certainly not politically correct – “libtards” and “deplorables” – to describe opposition and the chanting of hateful phrases like “lock her up,” which sounds more like a mob wanting blood than concerned citizens looking for justice.
Arguably, the denigration of civil language started long before the 2016 election. Neil Postman, in his seminal work “Amusing Ourselves to Death” published more than 30 years ago, predicted a time when the value of news would become measured not by its contribution to social or political awareness, but by its ratings. Postman argued that our ratings’ craze was leading to sensationalized reporting that not only affected which stories got reported but how they were reported.
Originally, this took shape in visuals that manipulated our emotions. We were not simply told that OJ Simpson’s SUV was being chased or that there were riots in LA in the ‘90s; we were titillated with graphic photos and videos that drew us in like fiery wrecks on the interstate.
When visuals weren’t enough, our language became shocking. Talking heads and media hosts brought on guests not to share their views in an intelligent fashion, but rather to be attacked, ridiculed, and cut off. Talk news became soap operas. In fact, the recent death of Roger Ailes was met with much derision because of his role in creating a news station that made name-calling and such ad hominem attacks routine.
It was only a matter of time before public discourse would be driven to its current low, where an adult calling a child a “snowflake” can happen on a news program that children watch.
And we, as news consumers, have not turned away from these circuses but instead are eating up what we see and read. We even parrot them under the guise of anonymity on social media outlets, comment boards, and more. In fact, in preparation for this editorial to run, I’ve been urged to not read the comments afterwards. Why?
Because someone who disagrees will call me names? Insult my intelligence? Question my American-ness? It seems ludicrous to think that sharing a viewpoint in a respectful way would lead to personal insults as response.
Returning civility to discourse should begin with those who have the most influence on our civil discourse: our leaders and mainstream media sources. But as President Trump showed as a candidate and as Bruce showed by bullying a child, we are hard-pressed to find true leadership from these venues.
That leaves the responsibility of civil discourse on us. As citizens, we need to refrain from normalizing bullying language. I refuse to accept Bruce’s apology or the apology of any adult who stoops to such lows as calling an innocent child names. We cannot expect a society of respect when we allow leaders to get away with discourse bullying.
Between ourselves, we should also consider how we bully with words, particularly in online debates and especially with those we disagree with. In public forums, we should check ourselves to discuss ideas, not attack the people saying them. It may not seem like much, but encouraging civil engagement on even the lowest-stakes platform helps build and gain momentum in other arenas.
This could take a lot of self-control when the easiest route is to use insults and to fight bullies back the moment they strike, in likely the same method that they attacked us. However, we need to take a step back from what is going on if our emotions are not allowing us to engage with each other civilly.
What we need to remember is this: political candidates, issues, and parties change, but no matter who is in power, the society that is left behind is the one we live with. When this political time passes, what society do we want in its wake? One where we respect each other and demonstrate kindness and allow differences in ideas? Or one where bullies rule?