Rhetorical Overkill Has Consequences

“Elections have consequences,” Barack Obama famously said. Words also have consequences. Suppose your long-time spouse were to say to you one not-so-fine morning, “I am leaving you. The movers are coming tomorrow.”  Even if he stuck around, his words would have consequences. They would cut you to the quick and tell you that the committed relationship that you thought you had no longer exists. “I’m not upset that you lied to me,” Nietzsche wrote. “I’m upset that from now on, I can’t believe you.” Words, once spoken, cannot be taken back, and they have consequences.

Like angry words spoken in a marriage, the words we choose also matter in politics.  When political partisans accuse one another of attempting to overthrow democracy, being white supremacists, or being an agent for a foreign enemy, their effect is very different from when they say I disagree with you on this or that issue of the day. Unprecedentedly, extreme communication led the US Supreme Court accused to be “at war with democracy.” Although the polite alternative posits that we are still engaged in a common enterprise in which dialogue and compromise are possible, the over-the-top accusations imply that the only solution is to either separate or eradicate our enemies. In recent days, the disrespectful attack of the SCOTUS serves as a great example of rhetorical overkill. Instigation of society with a leaked opinion draft is more than a wrong way to criticize the Supreme Court. The fundamental problem arises because the masses criticize a not-yet-made decision on a moral basis. Consequently, as Justice Clarence Thomas evaluated the situation, the most fundamental institution designed to ensure legal certainty is ‘threatened to be destroyed’.

Extreme communication promoted by media and echoed by most politicians falsely entitles citizens to criticize institutions and distrust their legitimacy. When the patient feels more confident in providing a diagnosis than the doctor, when the layman is drawing pseudo-legal arguments accusing the lack of competency and capability of the Supreme Court, then the cart has most likely been put in front of the horse.

Another good example of rhetorical overkill is the recent controversy over a decision by the McMinn Country, Tennessee school board to remove the graphic novel Maus about the Holocaust from the 8th-grade curriculum on account of the book’s “use of profanity and nudity.”  Rather than point out with genial humor the fact that most 8th graders could probably teach their elders a thing or two about profanity and nudity, as Mark Twain most likely would have done, author Art Spiegelman took to the internet to denounce the decision as “a breath of autocracy and fascism,” and to attack the local school board not for poor judgment but as evil people: “There’s only one kind of people who would vote to ban Maus, whatever they are calling themselves these days.” It should also be noted that the ensuing controversy catapulted the book to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. 

On the one hand, social media and the internet are undoubtedly partially to blame for declining civility in public speech in the United States. The internet presents us with a confusing welter of voices, sometimes called “information overload,” a term coined by political scientist Bertram Gross in 1964. To stand out, people sometimes “yell louder” by making hyperbolic charges to attract attention. “Yelling louder” works even more effectively if those who intend to influence public opinion grab on to a moral issue. The point is to cause a kind of “short circuit” in rational thinking. Influencers (mainly conscious politicians) use emotions to capture the audience. Emotions cover the overall meaning of the message but do not consider the nuances. Generalization is a handy tool for labeling topics as “good” or “bad”, “acceptable” or “unacceptable.”

On the other hand, politicians intentionally apply extreme rhetoric, which has polarized public discourse in many countries in recent years. By doing so, classical arguments on diverse general issues (e.g., education, migration) are now ultimately good or ultimately bad instead of being subjects of broad civil dialogue. Polarization of opinions results from this simplified, easy-to-consume communication, which thematizes the ‘current’. Usually, the politicized policies are related to basic needs (security, certainty); therefore, citizens consider it natural to care about them. These questions bring people out to vote (or to protest). Another feature of these topics is that the related arguments are either unilaterally “liberal” or unilaterally “conservative,” which generate seemingly irreconcilable contradictions on the surface. These contradictions may not exist on the policy level, or it is relatively easy to place them on the same page and find a healthy compromise. However, on the political level, the aim is to deepen the differences, distort the debate, and finally, divide the society. The wars of values cause irrevocable harm to individual development and, in the long run, to the society at large as well. The artificially created “love-hate axis” breaks families, creates an isolated work environment, and influences career paths by motivating young people to become opportunists and choose their ‘site’. As a result, there is no need for public discourse anymore. Does it resemble Marxist totalitarianism? 

In Europe, the same dynamic led up to “Brexit” not so long ago. If the United States wants to avoid a similar breakup of the federal union, it should take notes on how to avoid irresponsible and destructive rhetoric from its European cousins. Fortunately, the Brexit campaign is a teachable example of polarization. And it goes like this: (1) increase the significance of singular events, (2) link them to other events happening nearly at the same time and in close proximity, geographically speaking, (3) draw far-reaching conclusions from these, (4) depict scenarios for the future, and (5) reach a large number of people, such as through the incorporation of social media platforms. Moreover, the Brexit campaigners built a lot on emotions. On the Vote Leave web page, fear and insecurity were represented by the threats of immigration and permeable borders within the EU. After Brexit was done, the campaigners endorsed citizens with “positive confirmation”. The role of the positive feedback is selfish: “keeping the herd together.” Politicians choose their words intentionally. They may forget that hate, anger, and fear–just like in a marriage–lead to destruction. One does not have to be a marriage counselor to know that it is almost impossible to fight with emotions; it is no different in politics either. Academia and journalism have a significant role in maintaining a healthy public discourse. Experts have a responsibility to form the public opinion but without distorting or overinfluencing it. Events like Brexit show the power of words. The Brexit Party (now Reform UK) understood the significance of emotions in individual decision-making. The ‘Take back Control’ campaign showed that emotions work.

Although scientists like doing experiments to see if their hypotheses work in practice, they do not try everything out because they consider the risks and possible harms. Contrarily, as politicians plan for electoral cycles, they consider quick results, regardless of the risks. Drumming up votes has never been so easy like it is now. Ever since social media platforms emerged and became spiritual nourishment for the masses, politicians only need to feed the two-pole society with morally consumable news. 

The division of the society is simply dangerous. Similarly to marriage, using painful arguments in politics leads to divorce. In equal relationships, such as in marriages and among political allies, unity built upon emotions, interests, or both shall govern. Spouses have a natural need to rely on each other and unite their forces to achieve common goals; it is the same in politics. The USA understood the power of being united first; later, Europe followed its example after the second World War. Brexit shows, however, that unity is fragile and fleeting. Partisans turning their backs on rationality and descending into invective communication often leads to irrevocable and unforeseeable consequences. Such could very well be the destruction of the authority of the US Supreme Court.

So, what may Brexit teach the USA then? Lacking public discourse and polarizing opinions lead to divorce. The SCOTUS incident arguably shows that the US is closer to a breakup than many US experts seem to realize. Moreover, those pushing divisive issues should try to put them in perspective by asking whether they believe they are important enough to risk a national breakup over them. Every ‘current’ topic is essential, but it is at least as vital as how we express our disagreements. As we know, “It’s not about what you say; it’s about how you say it!” 

What is the solution to avoid breakups? Unfortunately, it is not entirely possible to do so. But maintaining mutual respect and civility in communication could be the first step. Marriage counselors teach couples how to navigate their disagreements. One of their key principles is not to escalate disagreements beyond the particular issue into an attack on the other person as an evil person. That move turns the controversy of the moment into something that cannot be resolved, except by going your separate ways. Even if state-level allies and marriages are different, there are some similarities. For instance, both are designed for long (or rather unlimited) durations. A potential solution could be the introduction of limited-term relations with revision clauses allowing exiting for the parties every 5-10 years. Another solution could be to apply codes of conduct. The soft tools would give a frame for the public (and private) discourse to maintain civility. Modern, private actor-based solutions are also available and could work. Social media platforms are trying to police extreme rhetoric on their platforms upon their self-regulatory guides. Employing moderators to maintain civility is a unique solution, but strong arguments are against it: moderators should be neutral, but since they are humans, the mistake is already codified in the system. Neutrally thinking human beings do not exist, but prejudices and altering opinions do. Therefore, applying codes of conduct could facilitate civil dialogue in our relationships. Incorporating revision clauses for long-term cooperation could encourage the parties to stay civil if they want to continue and motivate them to seek mutual advantages. At the same time, limited terms enable parties to exit without further consequences if their relationship is no longer sustainable.

If the United States wants to stay “married,” it had better re-learn the lesson of how to disagree with one another without turning the politics into a fight to the death. Divorce can only lead to one thing: going on separate ways, with the idea of the partnership slowly drifting into oblivion.

Lilla Nóra Kiss, PhD, visiting scholar and adjunct faculty at Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University. Lilla is the co-founder of Freedom and Identity in Central Europe (FICE) working group. Email: lkiss@gmu.edu

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