Trumping Authoritarianism, Part Two (for Part One, click here)
A large part of reclaiming a narrative is reframing or discrediting language that historically has been used to demean certain groups and diminish their power in society. Authoritarians, especially Trump, bristle at the notion of political correctness, which is to say a call for greater sensitivity in the language one uses publicly in mixed company. And in today’s always connected and increasingly global society, there’s rarely a time when we’re not in mixed company. As irrefutable proof of authoritarianism’s perceived rank in the hierarchy, you rarely hear anyone complain about political correctness who is not white. Show me a word or phrase that’s considered politically correct, and I’ll show you a community that has suffered the indignity of its use for far too long. Authoritarians have presumed their heightened status and surrounded themselves with the like-minded for so long they don’t even recognize the isolating bubble in which their institutional bias contains them. When I emailed my representative to protest the passing of HB2, he was unable to get past my characterization of the law as “hateful,” when I, in turn, could think of no other word to describe legislation that discriminates. Basically, it boils down to this: politically correct means your audience is no longer made up of a majority of your buddies who laugh at your n****r jokes in the country club locker room. Fortunately, those maligned by this kind of implicit bias have sufficiently armed themselves with self-knowledge, organization and readily available technology by way of announcing to the Powers That Be that they will no longer tolerate such language – and the violent, destructive actions they invariably inspire – lying down.
As with most corrections here are sometimes over-corrections. I was intrigued recently when I came across a news item announcing a new Google browser extension called “Choice Language.” This extension was developed by the National Institute of Reproductive Health, who wanted to bring attention to the fact that those calling themselves pro-life actually support policies that would deny life-enhancing or supportive services for the mother and family beyond the conception and birth of the child. The way “Choice Language” works is that once installed it replaces in your browser every use of the term “pro-life” with “anti-choice.” My initial reaction when I saw this was, “That’s brilliant!” On further reflection, I’m not so sure. I absolutely get where NIRH is coming from, since I agree that the use of the pro-life term is a deceptive characterization of its true intent, which is to deny a woman the freedom to choose what she does with her own body. Therefore, pro-life is really anti-choice, and anti-choice is quintessential authoritarianism (recall the woman’s rank in the hierarchy). The NIRH has created a way to flip the script online by returning the term to what they consider its true meaning.
Another, more hilarious example of this language-switching was introduced when John Oliver did his epic takedown of Donald Trump on his Last Week Tonight program on HBO. (It was reported recently that the video had broken all HBO records by reaching 85 million views on YouTube and Facebook combined.) At the end of his segment, he unveiled his show’s own Google extension called the “Drumpfinator.” Earlier in the segment he had revealed genealogically that Trump’s family had changed their name from Drumpf to Trump in the 1600’s, and so the Drumpfinator extension returns The Donald to his more humble origins by replacing every instance of Trump with the less authoritative-sounding Drumpf (it sucks for those who share the Trump family name!).
Both of these tools do indeed correct instances of language usage that you may feel has been imposed on you by the institutional or implicit bias of our patriarchically-controlled media, business, government, and other institutions, but they only do so on your laptop or device, which is a rather solipsistic sphere of influence. Not only that, but by enabling your device to reflect your preferred language back at you, it merely reinforces a position you already have. In other words, it does precious little to change the world beyond yourself, let alone influence the views and behavior of those who disagree with you. As one who takes the utmost care with the language I use, this is far more troubling to me than anything Trump with his infantile vocabulary can say. As careful as I am (sometimes) to avoid offending people, I realize that not every word I use goes down like a spoonful of sugar. Still, I would take it as a major affront for someone on their end to change a single word I had deliberately chosen to make a point. Furthermore, as a voracious reader and lover of great writing, I appreciate how confronting and attempting to understand a writer’s choice of language that may be unfamiliar or challenge my beliefs forces me to change and grow intellectually and spiritually.
Unfortunately, taking control of and changing someone else’s language, as opposed to reflecting it back at them and holding them accountable for it, not only excuses the speaker from any accountability for his language but it also becomes an authoritarian act in and of itself. And in the hands of authorities, it’s easy to imagine them turning this tool into an example of 1984’s doublethink that manifests itself in the twisted logic of such expressions as “War is peace,” “Freedom is slavery,” and “Ignorance is strength.” Besides, what’s to stop Trump supporters from creating their own extension that transforms his obnoxiously infantile and incurious language into that of a Nobel laureate? We’re already quite adept at finding ways to isolate ourselves from the world and each other, which is the prelude toward the dangerous stance of declaring ourselves superior to those we deem as “others.” What we need instead in this age of bubble-inducing technologies and ideologies is a way of speaking to one another that tears down walls and brings us closer together by highlighting our commonalities, or at least enables us to better understand one another if we must agree to disagree, as opposed to taking refuge and comfort in language that drives a wedge between us.
I agree this call for civility and compassion doesn’t do much to solve America’s Trump problem, but then again I’m not entirely convinced that much needs to be done, particularly when fear of a highly unlikely Trump presidency distorts our emotions on this issue. I certainly understand and share people’s fear of a Trump presidency, and I appreciate their protests and vigilance against Trump’s less than presidential language and behavior on the stump. Just as with the rise of the Tea Party movement, however, I can’t help but think that these disgruntled masses – the majority of them white, male, with a high school diploma or less – are a shrinking minority in this country. To their credit, they happen to be a very committed, active and vocal minority, which creates the illusion of greater strength in numbers, but they simply do not have the numbers to win a presidential election, which the Republican Party, after stoking their anger and racism since the implementation of Nixon’s Southern Strategy, is now learning at the cost of its very existence. Even when they do win elections, Tea Party candidates show their ideological heads to be so far up their own asses that they are incapable of governing and thus powerless to do anything in office but obstruct. And while they may see in Trump the apotheosis of a take charge and make America great again authority, they have not been able to give him more than 40% of the votes in the primaries. It remains to be seen if he will be able to amass the necessary number of delegates to secure the Republican nomination, but even if he prevails there I can’t imagine his followers bringing him victory once he stands in stark contrast to his Democratic challenger, likely Hillary, who will waste no time in mercilessly tearing him a new one.
Then again, I could be lying to myself and wanting to hide my head in the sand, as we are sometimes wont to do when faced with something unspeakably ugly. I had to confront this conundrum when Trump came to little ol’ Hickory on March 14, the day before the NC primary (that he ended up winning with 29% of the vote). He was introduced and endorsed in true authoritarian fashion by our local district attorney, who told the crowd he supported Trump because he was “sick and tired” of law enforcement being vilified by the “left wing media.” (Never mind the communities that are sick and tired of suffering abuse and mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement because, again, power flows up and shit rolls down.) There was much ado and outrage about Trump’s appearance here on social media, and plans were made for protests to take place both within and outside the venue. I was invited and was seriously tempted to join the protestors, but in the end I had difficulty seeing how such a protest would do anything other than inflame Trump’s followers, who had by this point come to relish confrontation with protestors and use it as fuel for their fire. Again, I commend and am grateful to all those who put themselves on the line and showed up in an attempt to counter Trump’s racist and authoritarian message with compassion and inclusivity, only to be ridiculed and have mocking selfies taken with the greater numbers of Trump supporters.
There have been countless articles on how futile it is to dissuade such an intractable group with counter-arguments, facts and statistics, particularly when their numbers include ignorant xenophobes, racists, domestic terrorists, militia members and a volatile mix of other dangerous elements that Trump and his campaign team appear to revel in fomenting. The insane “that’s my story and I’m sticking to it, no matter what the facts say” debates we have had as a nation on vastly complex issues like climate change, renewable energy, income inequality, healthcare and so on tend to support that position. As unlikely as it may be to otherwise persuade Trump’s supporters to reject him, at least by attending his rallies wearing those stupid goddamn red trucker hats embossed with “Make America Great Again” they expose themselves for the rapidly dying relics of this anti-intellectual age they are. After the election and Trump’s inevitable loss, just watch as the ones wearing those hats become as passé and feckless, and stand out like sore thumbs in society’s margins, as those still proudly waving the Confederate flag.
So what’s a fellow Trump hater, lover of language and believer in true democracy to do? Well, you can either defeat him at the ballot box (so vote, dammit!), or you hit the buffoon with his true kryptonite: complete disengagement and utter lack of attention. It’s obvious by his narcissistic language that Trump is only doing this for his own ego and self-glorification. If no people and television crews were to show up at his rallies, he would pick up his ball, send out tweets calling everyone second-rate losers for not recognizing his greatness, and then move on to the next business deal or appearances on Celebrity Apprentice, Miss America pageant and WWE wrestling events. These are, frankly, the more suitable (i.e. inconsequential) outlets for a ham-fisted and authoritarian-lite style of business leadership used by so many CEOs hubristic enough to equate their success with the uncorrelated belief that government should be run like a business – or, worse, a family.
Above all, the thing we sensible people trying to make sense of this madness must guard against is becoming the very thing we deplore by engaging Trump or his followers in any way. I’ll be the first to admit that Trump causes a visceral reaction of disgust in me, but I am also adult enough to know that wanting to beat the shit out of the guy is not only wrong but solves nothing (and has no chance of happening anyway). As I said, this only fans the flames of his supporters’ righteous indignation and, worse, makes me as much of an asshole as he and his followers. In times like these we must keep our wits about us and not allow a demagogue like Trump and the demons he conjures to hold more power over us than they deserve. Language is, indeed, a choice, one we make at every conscious moment. We have a responsibility to ourselves and the hope embodied in our still unfolding life stories to choose language that reflects our freedom to say and think otherwise, as well as our highest aspirations as people and citizens of this great nation. The instances in this post where I have admittedly allowed my own emotions to get the best of me goes to show just how difficult this can be.
If it wasn’t already apparent, I confess to having an anti-authoritarian streak a mile wide, though I have been known to wear the ill-fitting, ass-chapping go-along-to-get-along suit when I have to. This tends to make me, in turn, even more suspicious, distrustful and resentful of those in power. I don’t believe that any human being has a lock on the answers to life’s mysteries, and anyone who claims they do – be it pope, president, preacher, teacher, politician, doctor, lawyer, whatever – is full of shit. Since childhood I have always gravitated towards the anti-heroes, underdogs and counterculture figures. In my own hierarchy (we all have an element of the authoritarian in us), punk rock and extreme metal reign supreme over mainstream pop, and low-brow forms of entertainment such as comic books and grade-B horror movies have just as much artistic merit as their academy-approved and classical counterparts. As a general rule, I believe the most powerful artistic statements are the most personal, those that challenge the audience with an unfiltered and unique expression of the artist’s humanity. I’ve obstinately chosen to doom myself to a low readership, for crying out loud, by using the gnat-like attention span of the internet for publishing my long-winded diatribes. If I’m regarded by pricks like Trump and his ilk of successful businessmen and political leaders as a loser, then I proudly own the title. They’re free to use a favorite lyric from Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” as an epitaph for my tombstone: “They got a name for the winners of the world/And I want a name when I lose.”
To be clear, I’m not in any way saying we should discard history, tradition and authority altogether to get rid of losers like Trump. After all, every one of us stands on the shoulders of giants to become who we are. Traditions are only as good as their relevancy and applicability to a current situation, so rather than always bow down to a tradition that’s outlived its usefulness (listen for the seven last words of a dying institution: “We’ve never done it that way before”), I’d rather follow the example of those who exist on the periphery and vanguard of new perspectives and ideas by way of developing new traditions that themselves will become obsolete. They are the ones who know – and openly acknowledge – what they don’t know, which is infinitely greater than what little they do know. They tell the most exciting and interesting stories, anyway, because they have the power to conjure what could be as opposed to simply repeating ad nauseam the way things are. They insist on rejecting the authoritarian constraints of formula in order to tell their stories in new and unique ways that only they can, in voices that only they possess. They show us the way to truth, as hard as that can be to discern in our confusing and morally relativistic times, and give us reasons to hope for the future, as dim as that prospect can be during times of ignorance and darkness. They’re disrupters, to use one of Trump’s favorite pejoratives for his protestors, only yet again he fails to comprehend the irony of using as an insult a term that would otherwise be considered flattering in his dominant realm of entrepreneurship.
I know myself well enough and am secure enough in the way I experience and process the world that I can’t help but immediately and categorically reject the authority of a clown like Trump. He’s a morally bankrupt person who’s got fck-all to say to me or, for that matter, any of us. He’s a cultural aberration who’s managed to turn the highest office in the country into an audition for a reality show. The first thing we must do is see Trump as a mirror reflecting the ugliness of rampant racism and our every-man-for-himself, winner-take-all system back at us. By coming to grips with the fact that his popularity says more about us as a nation than it does about his capabilities as a leader, we expose him as the man behind the curtain who can’t help but salivate at attention and move toward it like a moth to a flame. We must remind ourselves, too, that there are ways to succeed as a nation without making others fail. All I have at my disposal is my feeble intellect and the humble power of the pen (that someone said once was mightier than the sword), and I will continue to use them to keep myself from falling under the spell of false prophets. I will use them to speak out not only against the likes of Trump but also speak out for the compassionate, mutually respectful and tide-lifting way of life that he and his followers seek to destroy.
Though I couldn’t very well write this post without acknowledging the stinking 800-pound gorilla in the room, more discerning and humane readers will recognize this as an appeal to the better angels of our nature and the use of language that calls for a more equitable nation, not the unsustainable scenario of winners and losers that Trump evokes. Bringing accountability back to our public discourse will infuse our language with kindness and compassion, giving it the power to drumpf (sorry, forgot to turn off my Drumpfinator!) trump the obsolete, stifling and, let’s face it, un-American language of authoritarianism. Only when sufficient numbers of citizens become their own authorities can we drown out the voices of Trump and troops whenever and wherever they rear their ugly heads.