Monday, December 11, 2023

Sick of culture wars? Drop your weapons

| March 21, 2023 1:00 AM

Never mind the old sticks and stones adage. Words can do more than hurt. They also transform human interaction by creating stereotypes. The worst part is that it tends to happen subconsciously, under the mental radar.

Drunk Irish. Lazy, illegal Mexicans. Arab terrorists. White trash. Communist libtards. Racist conservatives. Labels as destructively inaccurate as they are useless to describe such giant swaths of human beings.

And a linguistic wrecking ball to truth in individualism and a well-functioning democratic society.

Beyond being a poor substitute for critical thinking, habitual labels become part of our inner monologues so that instead of informing, as words are intended, they do the opposite and limit understanding. Worse, they become weaponized, homogenizing and dismissing large groups of individual people. Taken to the extreme, stereotypes have justified discriminatory acts, laws and wars throughout human history.

Rather than being mere descriptors, the stereotyping such words proliferate has become ample fodder for modern culture wars.

While weaponizing words is not new to American society, the pace has picked up. We’ve become so habitually inclined toward discontent and criticism, we seem to have forgotten what there is to liken and appreciate in fellow man (and how to build on that to resolve, or at least live with, inevitable differences).

Back in the 1960s, for example, some liberal activists said conservatives were all fascists — hardly accurate, measuring 1960s conservatives by modern standards. During the Reagan years, vocal conservatives conflated government economic interventions with Marxism, probably not the word most Americans would use to describe that time.

Nor did all who would’ve described themselves as one party or the other back then agree with the judgments of their peers. Independent minds should be a redundantly obvious term.

Then and now, races, religions, and other groupings are being associated with adjectives that leave little room for individual thought and beliefs. Yet even within loving families, few would argue their beliefs and opinions are uniform. Why would they be any more true within groups?

Each individual presumed the same under these labels comes from a different background, has different experiences, varying education and information, different thought processes, and is very unlikely to perfectly fit the stereotypical molds set upon them by labels. No two people are, think or feel completely alike.

Labels, wielded as word-weapons, create the casualty of truth.

Dissent is not only par for the human course of experience; it’s literally written into both our (mental) constitution and the Constitution — by design a foundation of this relatively free society. Good policy requires different points of view; it is by this rigorous back and forth, Founding Fathers advised, that the best or most workable option can come to light in a country meant to embrace freedoms.

Yet respectful disagreement isn’t the same as angry diatribe (or worse, the “angertainment” American consumers seek or normalize). That’s become a kind of drug, something we seem to lob in almost addictive fashion as we seek more data to prove or justify our anger. It’s growing, despite the harm it obviously causes all sides by grouping individuals into nasty and often inaccurate stereotypical labels. The resulting polarization — perpetrated on both sides of the political spectrum — is destroying the quality of civic life and fraying the fabric of society.

Not to mention making Americans more stressed and depressed.

The food nourishing this social dystopia is words. Word choice can have a chilling effect on society’s ability to accommodate differences in opinions, ethnicity, religion, life choices and any other kind of diversity that defines individuality.

Isn’t the individual supposed to be what Americans celebrate? That has to start with the recognition that reducing one another with word-weapons eradicates recognition of the individual, the more it’s repeated. In a way, our weaponized words — again, coming from all sides — are hypocritical.

Research compiled in the September 2020 issue of the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, “How Language Contributes to Stereotype Formation,” illustrates how such labels contribute to stereotypes. Once social groups are thus labeled, researchers found, they’re much more likely to become targets of stereotyping. In turn, that leads to prejudice and potentially discriminatory treatment — in behavioral and social interactions, and worse, law.

And if you’re curious, yes, that’s how it started in Nazi Germany for Jewish citizens: with weaponized words. Before businesses started to turn them away. Before laws limited their behavior and work. Before they were forced to move to ghettos. Before the camps.

Just words.

According to a report “Anti-social Media” by British think tank Demos, racist and derogatory messages are posted on Twitter at a rate of about 10,000 (in 2014) and up to 25,000 (exec quoted by Business Insider in 2022) tweets per day — that’s approximately seven to 17 every minute.

More to the point, the Demos study found a “significant proportion” are racial slurs which aren’t directly threatening, in other words, a lot of people are casually tossing out slurs and abusive speech not to threaten, but to bind themselves into a group-think mentality — marginalizing and maligning groups of people. That, said researchers, seeps into broader language use and impacts underlying social attitudes.

In other words, all this word-tossing and word-weaponizing is affecting how we see one another. Polarizing us. Dividing us. And as Lincoln (and many others have) warned, a country divided will fall.

Unless we drop our weapons, one individual at a time. Adopt a speak-unto-others mentality, a mutual recognition of individuality and intrinsically equal human value, agree or disagree.

Yeah, that could work.

Thanks to reader R.P. for the column topic.

• • •

Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email

Recent Headlines