“Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.”
This is the old schoolyard response to name-calling and other taunts. Today, we’d call it bullying. I don’t believe it’s an accurate or appropriate response any longer.
What I want to do today is to explain how words, skillfully used, change how we think and ultimately, how we behave. We must be aware so we can remain in charge of our thoughts and actions vs. allowing others to take charge.
I last wrote about this in 2011, when Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman, was one of several who were shot by a gunman at a political event. At the time, my critique was that words and language we’d been using in our political and public discourse had impacted, even encouraged the perpetrator.
Language is tricky. Its meaning can hide, and, in the wrong hands, cause someone to commit murder. There is an example of this happening right now and we must know about so we can stop it before it’s too late.
Yes, I’m referring to the language being used (or not used) by Trump. Not only is there a tremendous amplification due to the growth of social media and his use of it, but his language is even more explicit and poisonous than what has been used to date by other politicians. It is a cynical effort to co-opt a group of fellow citizens, the vast majority of whom should be respected, but not encouraged.
Words are the vehicles of persuasion and they have great power. If you have any doubt about this, see the big advertisers, who all spend billions to find just the right words and phrases to pitch their products and services. The result of repeatedly hearing these billion-dollar messages over months or years is that even skeptics eventually find themselves slipping into buying mode.
There is a big difference however, between an advertiser who sells soap that contains “1/4 moisturizing cream” or promises a car characterized as “the ultimate driving machine,” and a political candidate, like Trump, who says things like,
“I’ll beat the crap out of you.”
“I’d like to punch him in the face.”
“Maybe he should have been roughed up.”
With the former, lives aren’t in danger. No one’s going to go into that supermarket or car dealership and start shooting because he disagrees with that message. But it is a fact that some individuals listening to certain political messages delivered by a man they see as their leader and even hero, will act on them.
(Something to notice and be hyper-aware of: Trump himself never gets dirty. He prefers others do his dirty work for him. This is cowardice personified.)
I said earlier that Trump voters and supporters must be respected and I mean that. Regardless of what I think of Trump and his hateful and inflammatory language, he has spoken some important truths. Among them are that too many people in our country have been shafted and have lost any hope of bettering their lives and the lives of their families. Politicians and government have largely been at fault. Our immigration system is broken and must be fixed soon. I can understand how promises to deport people who’ve overstayed their visas resonate; it is unfair. Last, but not least, terrorism feels like the new normal as evidenced by the horrific attacks in Europe and the one in San Bernardino. It is so very frightening and must be attended to.
Another observation: Trump’s language and presentation fall against the backdrop of the last 7 years of President Obama’s style. With respect to the president, he has always been of the mind that he shouldn’t have to sell his point of view, that it is somehow beneath him. He refuses to be the “daddy-in-chief” even when we need him to be. It is one of his great failings as a communicator and leader and the rise of a Trump is a stark reminder and rejoinder.
The Trump voters are multi-faceted, of course, but many of them seem to share the following:
These form the perfect recipe for his incendiary rhetoric. If I put myself in the shoes of someone feeling these emotions, I might want to “beat the crap” out of someone. And if I were inclined to become physical, I might act on it. Here is what I know for sure: The vast majority of people will not act. But it only takes a few in a crowded arena, egged on by their so-called “leader,” and overtaken by group dynamics (mob mentality), to inflict a lot of damage and maybe even death.
Of course, demonizing the “other” and threatening, coded language didn’t start with Trump. It has long been used by those who are most evil to foment violence. Trump might not quite reach the level of evil (not yet), but I would characterize him as wicked. Trump knows better, as one must to be as successful as he has been, which is what makes him all the more odious.
That he makes such vicious and provocative statements, then denies them while softening his tone, or pivots to a subject of his choice so masterfully that even seasoned reporters don’t know what hit them takes planning, aforethought, and lots and lots of practice. Something else I am certain of.
There is nothing that can be done about him. He is lost.
But we are not lost. We can all do something. We can identify and understand his techniques, apply this understanding and recognize that only the cowardly and insecure lead the way he does. We can be more self-aware. We can temper our feelings and behaviors. We can ask ourselves soul-searching questions: Is this how I treat my neighbor? Is this how I would want my neighbor to treat me?
All of us. All of us.
Truth: Our country does need some revolutionary thinking and courageous leadership. The people who have been in power for decades have failed us miserably. The current crop of candidates are, as usual, uniformly weak and co-opted by interests of one type or another, yet, one of them will be the next president. This is sad, but not wicked.
Our only choice is to demand change, to use some of the best communication techniques to beat the Trumps of the world at their own game:
1. Carefully select a leader to give us voice lest we destroy what our
2. Create a strong message that resonates.
3. Hound them until they get it done.
God help us if it’s a demagogue like Donald J. Trump.