I have not posted anything on my blog since September 21–over a month ago, my longest dry spell since I began it in May of 2016. Significantly, this hiatus coincides quite neatly with the weeks that have elapsed since the political circus that began on September 27, when Christine Blasey Ford made a public accusation of being sexually assaulted 36 years ago, and ended on October 6, when Brett Michael Kavanaugh was sworn in as the 114th Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. This coincidence is not accident; in fact, I began and made a few notes for the current post as early as October 5. I suppose I should reveal now that I had even collected plenty of evidence of the point I wanted to make. Unfortunately, it was all on one side–the one I have considered the wrong side for the last 45 years. So I kept looking for more–in vain.
Let me make a couple of disclaimers before I begin my argument. First, nothing (nothing except Christine Blasey Ford, that is) could have convinced me to support Kavanaugh as a nominee for the Court. Admittedly, my support for Democratic candidates has been waning since the party has made its decisive swing toward identity politics and away from the freedom of speech and the presumption of innocence. However, my deepest fear leading up to November 8, 2016, was that Donald Trump could be nominating at least two justices to the Supreme Court and turn it solidly to the right for a generation or more.
Second, and from the other side, I confess that I was already prejudiced against Ford; I virtually always disbelieve women who make accusations of long-past sexual assault. In this particular case, I have no idea whether the alleged incident occurred; the accuser has an extremely selective memory, nor has anyone come forth to corroborate her account. Moreover, even if the event occurred, I really don’t care. Christine Blasey Ford was 15 at the time and admits that she herself indulged in illegal underage drinking; I also suspect that the good-looking 17-year-old star athlete Kavanaugh would have been considered a great catch in that lazy summer of 1982. Further, I do not believe that the sexual exploits of an adolescent boy have anything to do with his legal acumen or his ability to make impartial decisions under the law.
As I endured my own assault–at the hands of NPR, CNN, and even Fox News–in late September and early October, my primary focus was on the language I was hearing from those varied media outlets. Most troubling was the language expressed in the newly minted hashtag #BelieveSurvivors. Of course, the inventors of slogans are always aware of the insidious use of words to manipulate mobs, and these radical women are no different. Simply using the hashtag expresses belief in the accusation because a survivor is one who “carr[ies] on despite hardships or trauma” (American Heritage Dictionary, 5th ed.). That is, the hashtag would suggest, the very act of accusation is equivalent to the trauma.
The original incarnation of that phrase is the decades-old proscription against “blaming the victim.” Once again, calling someone a victim of rape presupposes that such a crime occurred. Even more dangerous, though, is the current consensus that so-called victim-blaming is never accurate. Amy Lacount writes on the feminist website Bust, “Rape is never, ever, the victim’s fault. Unfortunately, not everyone thinks so–as everyone from assholes on social media to tennis stars to cops play into rape culture, often questioning the victim while giving the benefit of the doubt to the perpetrator.” While not everyone might choose such incendiary language to get across the same message, so strong is that shared belief that disagreeing could certainly get someone fired from a professorial or media job. Nevertheless, I am unwilling to believe that a girl or woman who goes to a bar, gets drunk, and returns with a man to his room shares none of the blame for whatever happens. Nor–having said at least one ambivalent “no” in my life–will I agree with those who proclaim “no never means yes.” Turning morning-after regret into criminal accusation effectively offers complete absolution to the other half of the two I still believe it takes to tango. Moreover, “giving the benefit of the doubt to the [alleged] perpetrator” is, I would suggest, foundational to the adversarial justice system. That’s what the presumption of innocence and the evidentiary standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” are all about.
Now, I would like to consider some other examples of this linguistic dishonesty prevalent in the news today–all, sadly, on the part of my own political bedfellows and the specific outlets of broadcast and print media I traditionally relied on the most.
Mob: I turn once again to American Heritage, where I find that a mob is “a large and often disorderly crowd.” By extension, mob rule (according to the dictionary on Google) is “control of a political situation by those outside the conventional or lawful realm, typically involving violence and intimidation.” President Trump and other Republicans have recently been pilloried by the media for calling the politics of the Democrats “mob rule.” Here are a few notable examples:
- An article from describes the group that chased Ted Cruz and his wife from a Washington restaurant shouting “We Believe Survivors!” The exultant video posted on Twitter by Smash Racism DC leaves no doubt in my mind that they were indeed a mob. Another tweet cited in that article makes the threat of violent mob rule seem even more imminent: “This is a message to Ted Cruz, Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump and the rest of the racist, sexist, transphobic, and homophobic right-wing scum: You are not safe. We will find you. We will expose you. We will take from you the peace you have taken from so many others.”
- Alan Fram, “GOP, Home to Trump and Tea Party, Decries Dems’ ‘Mob Rule,‘” AP News, October 11, 2018. This article refers to the charge that the anti-Kavanaugh protesters–described therein as “intense,” with some Republican lawmakers experiencing personal threats–were practicing mob rule.
- “Calling Democrats a ‘Mob’ Shows How Little Republicans Know about Them,” USA Today, October 15, 2018. According to the url, the original title ended with “Shows Republican Ignorance.” Perhaps a savvy editor realized that some words actually do go too far. Of note, the author never once tries to disprove the “mob” label; he simply lists the things he stands for, as though his political pedigree made him a member of the Académie americaine. The article was originally published as a letter to the editor by Terry Gilleland in the Times Record News [Wichita Falls, TX].
- Eli Stokols and Noah Bierman, “Trump Tries to Stir Republicans with False Claims and Dystopian Warnings of ‘Mob Rule.'” Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2018. “False claims” turn out to be election-eve rhetoric about tax cuts that will happen in the future –but can “claims” about what is going to happen in the future be “false”?
- These, in fact, are two of the most dangerous mobs I have ever witnessed, violent protests against the foundation of American civil liberties, the freedom of speech:
Mock: I listen to All Things Considered on my way home from school every evening, and I generally feel strong admiration for their newscasters’ command of language (they know that media is the plural of medium, for example, and they know the difference between irony and coincidence). Therefore, I was shocked when I heard Ailsa Chang say on October 3 that President Trump’s “relatively restrained” response to the Kavanaugh hearings had changed completely last night “when [he] mocked Ford at a rally in Mississippi.” Mocked? Surely, I thought, the editors at NPR know the subjective connotations of calling someone’s actions mockery. I was wrong, and I subsequently heard the same word everywhere. This evening, I searched Google for “Trump mocks” and found more than a pageful of hits not only from the staid NPR, but also from CNN, NBC, Politico, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, some staid, some not so much. By the second page, the language-mauling bandwagon had crossed the Atlantic; the BBC and The Guardian were among those with mockery in their headlines. Even Fox News entitled one of its stories “Trump Appears to Mock Ford’s Testimony during Campaign Rally.” At least a few organizations used more precise and less pejorative language and characterized Trump’s litany of “I don’t know”s to depict Ford’s memory lapses, describing it as lampoon (still leaning toward ridicule) or parody (the most neutral of the words used in any article I found).
Rape: This word is, of course, directly related to some of the linguistic chicanery discussed above. Its meaning has been intentionally blurred and expanded so there seems to be little if any distinction between innocent flirtation and violent criminal acts. During my research over the months, I have found many websites whose definitions of rape would be ludicrous if they didn’t have such potentially dangerous consequences. This one, however, is the most egregious I have found: In February of 2016, Elizabeth Enochs of Bustle (according to its own “about us” page, “the largest premium publisher reaching millennial women”) described “7 Things That Can Be Rape, Even if You Were Taught to Think That They Can’t Be.” These included the following:
- If you ask your partner to switch positions and they [sic] refuse;
- If your partner forces you to deep throat them [sic again];
- If someone tries to have sex with you when you’re incapable of giving consent [i.e. drunk]; and [drum roll]
- If your partner keeps asking for sex after you refuse, until you finally say yes. [Even yes means no.]
As my nemesis Donald Trump suggested the same crowd with whom he “mocked” Christine Blasy Ford, if I were the mother of a teenaged boy, I would think that these are indeed dangerous and scary times.
And of course, as noted above, there is rape culture. I wasn’t familiar with the phrase until someone on Facebook called me a “sicko” and “an accomplice of rape culture.” Another told me, “You are a piece of shit for advocating rape culture.” The offense that labeled me culpable as a rapist? I agreed with Donald Trump, Jr., who had said that women who cannot handle harassment “don’t belong in the workplace” (or something like that). By extension, if my scorn for anyone who cries sexual harassment makes me a member of rape culture, then hanging a pin-up calendar in a bathroom in the workplace or telling an “unwelcome” joke must therefore be rape. There isn’t room left on this particularly slippery slope.
Racism: I wasn’t planning to get into this inflammatory subject, but the Megan Kelly kerfuffle just this week has changed my mind; at least I’ll scratch the surface. Honestly, I knew nothing about Megan Kelly before this week. I had heard her name and knew she was a conservative news reporter; that’s it. But of course I know all about her now because she was fired from her job on NBC for saying something about children’s Halloween costumes. The firestorm created by her innocent and off-the-cuff remark has reached unbelievable proportions. More examples of insidious diction in the media occurred when many sources accused Kelly of defending the wearing of blackface for Halloween and lamenting the good old days when such costumes were acceptable. Here is what she said, and it seems a lot more like a statement of fact than a defense of anything: “[W]hat is racist? You truly do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface at Halloween or a black person who puts on white face. That was OK when I was a kid, as long as you were dressing like a character.”
Notably, the offending statements came during a segment about the more general topic of Halloween costumes and political correctness. I didn’t even know there was such a controversy, but now I do. One costume company was forced to pull from the shelves a sexy get-up depicting a character in The Handmaid’s Tale because it was a “symbol of women’s oppression.” Another article begins, “Other Cultures Aren’t Costumes” and lambastes a second company, which introduced a new a geisha costume this year.
“But what is racist?” Kelly asked during the controversial episode. That is indeed the question. Doreen St. Félix snarkily reported that query in a New Yorker piece published yesterday. Yes, I do know the connotations of snarky. But I am writing an opinion piece here, not news. St. Félix continued with the suggestion that the “white arbiter” isn’t really qualified to have an opinion on the question and then identifies “systemic racism” in the cancellation of an MSNBC program hosted by a black woman. She goes on to define as a “damaging and . . . pernicious racial comment” Kelly’s earlier suggestion that rampant gun violence makes the south side of Chicago “like a war zone.”
I will conclude by returning to an offhand statement in the previous paragraph–and tying it in with the title I chose for this piece. I make no suggestion that these reflections are anything other than commentary–not “mere opinion,” I hope, but a well-reasoned and amply-supported argument. Yes, I know the difference, and so did the former giants of the American media; I am afraid their current offspring do not. Moreover, I am not worried about what Donald Trump fatuously calls “fake news.” Although no one seems to care about doing so in this age of “post-truth politics,” facts can be checked. Arrests can be photographed, crowds can be counted, statements can be recorded, and statistics can be analyzed. A much more pernicious phenomenon than fake news is fake language. If people care little about facts and truth, my long-time experience as a teacher of writing and a careful observer of language trends reveals to me that they care much less about the meanings of words. The masses of people are easily manipulated by those in power who use language to obfuscate and control instead of to illuminate and empower. And those who wield that power? They don’t believe that words even have meanings, so they don’t care much about precision. But they understand clearly the use of slogans to ignite mobs.
George Orwell, where are you when we need you more than ever?