People have long said talk is cheap, but these days the value of words is plummeting.
The blatant devaluation of the language is a relatively new phenomenon. In 2008, Barack Obama made a big splash in the then-heated race against Hillary Clinton when he argued that words “matter.”
“Don’t tell me words don’t matter. ‘I have a dream’ — just words,” he said. “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal’ — just words. ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’ — just words, just speeches.”
Although it turned out Obama partly plagiarized that speech from then-Gov. Deval Patrick (D-Massachusetts), the point was that words have the power to move people and change societies. Recall the “hope and change” mantra he peddled that election cycle.
Nine years later, the vernacular is much cheaper. During the eight years of the Obama presidency, his administration and allies used words less to inspire than as blunt instruments to inflict damage on their opposition.
A modern-day Spanish Inquisition branded political opponents racist, sexist, bigoted, nativist, homophobic, all with an aim at seeking and destroying those that disagreed with their orthodoxy.
According to some on the left, the rise of the tea party movement in 2010 was nothing more than a “racist” reaction to a black man in the White House.
If you are a male legislator who disapproves of public money being used to fund the abortion provider Planned Parenthood, you are not a guardian of taxpayer money; no, you are simply a sexist who turns a blind eye toward women’s issues!
Troubled by the nation’s immigration policy and the lax border enforcement? Well, it is not because you have labor market concerns, you are clearly racist toward Hispanics!
Find it peculiar the government would force a baker to create a cake for a same-sex wedding against his religious convictions? Obviously, you do not disagree on the merits of religious liberty and free speech, you are showing signs of bigotry and homophobia!
In the short term, it worked. No one wants to be called any of those names. It had a chilling effect on a lot of political opposition to the Democratic Party.
However, after eight years of this demagogic tactic in almost every political and policy debate, it has lost its effectiveness.
Calling people a sexist, racist, bigot, nativist or homophobe does not have the effect it once had. In fact, in some cases it has the opposite effect. Take the election of President Donald Trump. For many, the ballot they cast on Election Day last year was not just pushback against political correctness, but being fed up with feeling under assault for having a belief system that did not jibe with the conventions of Washington, D.C., New York City and Hollywood.
Still, here we are today, and despite losing a string of elections, including a big one to Trump, we still see the progressive left use the same ad hominem playbook.
Trump’s travel ban? Bigotry! Nativism! Republicans legislating against the growth of Medicaid? Racism! The mere appearance of Vice President Mike Pence, who once signed the so-called “Religious Freedom Act” as governor of Indiana? Homophobia! Trump takes to Twitter to take a shot at a female critic in the media? Sexism!
People have stopped listening. These words no longer carry the sting they once had. The left has simply overused them to the point where language of this kind is meaningless.
Consider a recent example. Last week Trump tweeted some ill-advised remarks about MSNBC “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski, saying she had been “bleeding badly” from a facelift. That turned out to be a shot heard around the world for the political and media intelligentsia.
Former Rep. Gwen Graham (D-Florida), now a candidate for governor of Florida, responded to Trump with her own tweet declaring Trump’s “latest tirade” was not only unpresidential, but it was “barbaric.”
Barbaric? Barbaric is a brutal North Korean regime beating an American citizen senseless and sending him home to the United States in a coma. Barbaric is ISIS lining up 30 Coptic Christians on a beach and staging a mass beheading.
Apparently, however, “barbaric” in 2017 America is putting out a tweet mocking an individual who has on numerous occasions offered diagnoses of your mental health on national television.
Yes, words matter, but after a while people become desensitized to them. If everyone is sexist, racist, nativist, bigoted and homophobic, then no one is racist, bigoted, sexist and homophobic. And, for that matter, if tweets are barbaric, what shall we call ISIS?
Those who do not really see eye to eye with whatever the politically correct agenda item of the day at some point will say, “Well, they’re going to label me something I’m not anyway, so why not go ahead and speak out?”
In some ways, those applying the method of demagogic speak have wised up and invented or reinvented terms to advance an attack — alt-right, nationalist, populist, isolationist, protectionist.
People may not know exactly what those mean. However, they know that they are bad. With time, the effectiveness of throwing those words around will fade as well.
Consider this: The rhetoric has shifted from airy-fairy platitudes like “hope and change” to a stream of charges assaulting the character of political opponents. Remember Hillary Clinton’s declaration labeling some Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables?” How did that work out?
Politics is a game of addition, not subtraction. For now, one side (albeit not perfectly) seems to grasp this law of mathematics better than the other side.
Judgments of character meant to scare people into straightening up and seeing things from a politically correct perspective are now just taken as smug elitism on parade. The recent election results back this up.
Yes, words do matter, but when it comes to politics, they have undergone a serious devaluation.