Shifting Language

This Is How Words Become Weapons


With Trump in office, insults are now arsenal, with the power to not only hurt reputations, but to write bigotry into law.



As our politics have gotten meaner, so has our language, on the right and the left. But current conversations about “civility” obscure a fundamental difference: Liberals may use naughty words that offend more delicate sensibilities and cross lines of professional decorum (an intern was recently penalized for yelling, “Mr. President, fuck you,” at  Trump). But the Trump administration and his followers have embraced a vernacular of bigotry, the kind of language that has in the past been a prelude to violence, internment, and genocide—language that isn’t offensive because it breaks professional-class taboos, but because it renders entire groups of people sub-human.

This language seems to be working as intended. Americans have become increasingly acclimated to a president and a right-wing political force that relish in offensiveness and insults that range from the sexually and racially tinged to the flat-out sexist and racist. As this language has become mainstreamed, it has also become easier for that same president to institute crude, racist, and sexist policies.

Trump streaked sexist language through his campaign, and his fans magnified it. Here was a candidate for president who insulted women who challenged him as dogs, pigs, and disgusting animals, and who, as a lifelong tabloid-headline-chaser, made it clear he thought women were little more than “piece[s] of ass” who you had “to treat… like shit.”

His supporters went even further, using every misogynist word in the book to describe Hillary Clinton, showing up at rallies in “Trump That Bitch” T-shirts. More than a year after the election, Hillary-hate remains an animating force for Trump and his followers. It isn’t just that they dislike Clinton’s politics. Judging by the language they use, it seems to be the fact that a mere woman challenged a self-styled man’s man that angers them; it represents a changing culture, one in which women compete with men for power and masculinity isn’t the powerful, deference-demanding force it used to be. It also sends a message to every woman who might consider such an encroachment into male-dominated spaces: It’s easier to stay silent. Challenge men and you will be attacked, threatened, devalued and discredited not for anything you did, but for the crime of being female and ambitious in public. Break the socially enforced requirement of female subservience to male authority and the cost is your dignity—and maybe even your physical safety.

Trump tore through even the veneer of civility in American politics (already a place long uncivil to women and people of color), and explicitly sexist political decisions poured through (how ironic that the chief complaint lately is about liberals ruining someone’s dinner). First was the simple fact that Trump didn’t put very many women in power, appointing the whitest and most heavily male cabinet in decades. Then, his efforts to curtail the reproductive freedoms of women overseas went much further than similar dictates from his Republican predecessors, putting millions of women the world over at greater risk of death and injury to please a so-called “pro-life” base. When his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, announced that women would no longer qualify for asylum in the U.S. after fleeing their home countries because they suffered domestic violence, and their local police consider partner violence a private matter and do nothing to protect female victims of violence, he used the same logic as those misogynist police forces and abusers themselves: Domestic violence is a private, personal matter. This is the same view that kept domestic violence legal and then broadly unpunished in the U.S. for centuries, and that keeps women and girls under the violent control of their spouses in much of the rest of the world—it doesn’t cause domestic violence, exactly, but it enables it and perpetuates it. This legal shift didn’t register all that broadly, because right around the same time, our collective attention turned to the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their immigrant parents and locking them in cages.

We have also simply come to expect amplified sexism from this administration—that’s what their language-trained us for. Of course a guy whose rallies are attended by adult men who wear “She’s a cunt, vote for Trump” T-shirts is going to be a misogynist in the policy realm, too. What’s impressive, though, is how the Trump right has also laid claim to these words, hurling them at liberals with glee, and crying foul when they’re tossed back. When comedian Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt,” the outcry on the right was loud and sustained, evidence that progressives are the real sexists. What is good for the gander, it’s clear, is very much not good for the goose.

It’s not just that there’s a bifurcated system of who can use crass words themselves. There are also totally different expectations of truth-telling and political responsibility. One great success of Trump and his alt-right fans is that they have behaved so childishly, irresponsibly, deceitfully and absurdly—starting with the language they use, which is often grammatically incorrect and coarsely adolescent (“SAD!”)—that we have been conditioned into low expectations. The bar for shock and outrage has gotten higher as the behavior and words drop lower and lower. The talk about “alternative facts” and we begin to accept that they simply lie, even as we don’t like it and continue to call it out; they call immigrants “animals” who “infest” the country and we are appalled and enraged, but not surprised, to see children in cages.

It goes without saying that these new norms don’t apply to liberal politicians or mainstream journalists, from whom we (including Republicans) collectively continue to expect adult behavior, including honesty and the decency to be accountable for one’s choices. It is a good thing, obviously, that these norms still apply somewhere. But that also skews the battlefield, giving one side an arsenal of weaponry that the other has to apologize for occasionally touching.

So how do you make the field even without compromising your values and losing your soul? You don’t. You have to create higher costs for the side that bends the rules. As long as Trump is in office, words-as-weapons will be the rule, and language will continue to clear the field for the malevolent policies that come next. The question is how much damage our new linguistic bludgeons will do, and whether it will ever be possible to clean it all up.

This is the third installment in our ongoing series on America’s “shifting language.” In our previous piece, we look at the difficulty in defining language when even the word “fact” has lost its meaning.

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