Inoculation Against Hate Speech?

Posted on February 3, 2020

Newt Gingrich is a Republican politician who was Speaker of the House of Representatives when Bill Clinton was president of the US. He started the impeachment trial against Clinton, where the main charge was lying about an extramarital affair. Gingrich had to resign from the speakership, and later altogether from Congress, after it was revealed that at the time of the impeachmet trial he had been conducting an extramarital affair of his own, with a congressional employee.

Gingrich was a master at sowing discord. He played a key role in the creation of the political polarization that started when he was House Speaker and that has now made the United States next to ungovernable.

Gingrich’s tool of choice was language. He provided the inspiration for Language: A Key Mechanism of Control, a working paper of GOPAC, the Republican political training organization that he founded, with recommendations on how to talk about one’s political opponents. You can read the whole memo here. It ends as follows.

“Often we search hard for words to define our opponents. Sometimes we are hesitant to use contrast. Remember that creating a difference helps you. These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party.”

“decay, failure (fail) collapse(ing) deeper, crisis, urgent(cy), destructive, destroy, sick, pathetic, lie, liberal, they/them, unionized bureaucracy,”compassion" is not enough, betray, consequences, limit(s), shallow, traitors, sensationalists, endanger, coercion, hypocricy, radical, threaten, devour, waste, corruption, incompetent, permissive attitude, destructive, impose, self-serving, greed, ideological, insecure, anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs; pessimistic, excuses, intolerant, stagnation, welfare, corrupt, selfish, insensitive, status quo, mandate(s) taxes, spend (ing) shame, disgrace, punish (poor…) bizarre, cynicism, cheat, steal, abuse of power, machine, bosses, obsolete, criminal rights, red tape, patronage"

This is a very crude recipe, but the crudeness is the point. Remember that creating a difference helps you is the summary of the message. Language as a tool for creating differences is the kind of language that can easily morph into hate speech. Language can be used to plaster over the distinction between true and false, but not forever. When the details about Gingrich’s extramarital love life came out, the word hypocrisy quickly reassumed its old meaning.

It is my hope that being informed about linguistic control tactics such as those propagated by Gingrich can serve as inoculation. Awareness of the fact that being called a ‘hypocrite’ or a ‘radical’ or a ‘socialist’ is part of a polarization tactics can hopefully make us immune for such tactics. Knowing that using certain epithets creates division and strengthens polarity, we can learn to avoid these labels ourselves. Adam Schiff took great pains to avoid the word liar when commenting on Pat Cipollone’s defense of Trump. Schiff knew how to blend logos, ethos and pathos in his presentation, while the Trump defense relied on pathos alone (histrionics, shouting, calling names, everything straight from the GOPAC memo).

Knowing the purpose of name-calling and of empty pathos when they are used against us, we can learn new tactics for dealing with the labeling and the histrionics:

For me, ‘socialist’ is a badge of honor, and ‘radical’ is, too. And at the same time I hesitate to say this, for I do not want to alienate people who are frightened by these badges.

Next, we can learn to replace difference-creating jargon with connection-creating language. We can increase our own sense of belonging by putting emphasis on the ways in which we are similar to others, even to our political or ideological adversaries. We can emphasize that we share a common core with every human being we will ever encounter, and we can learn to create connection with our fellow humans by focussing on that core. Even if we do not agree at all with the ideas and values of someone, we can still say something like this:

“I appreciate you, while being fully aware of our differences. Indeed, our differences make the world a more interesting place. I would like to find out more about your outlook and I am willing to learn from you. It is OK for me to experience how your values challenge me. You have every right to think and feel as you do. Your presence serves as a reminder of why I believe what I believe and why I hold dear what I hold dear. Let there be peace between us.”

Instead of being forged into a mechanism of control, language can become a tool for setting us free. We do not have to get our cues from Newt Gingrich. Instead, we can turn to Abraham Lincoln who once remarked “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better”, and on another occasion: “We defeat our enemies when we make our friends.”

Efforts to really get someone’s world are richly rewarded when we are establishing connection. In dealing with others, our aim should be to build them up, taking our inspiration from the famous words of Saint Paul: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

Language can be used for deception, for gossip, for stirring up aggression. It is very easy to use words for creating division, but division harms us, entraps us, and makes us contract. We can also use words that make us expand. Everyone can notice what happens when we pay someone a genuine compliment, or when we show someone our sincere gratitude and appreciation. Using language like this has the power to set us free. We can let our speech become the magic wand that dissolves our false sense of separation. We can work together to create an atmosphere where each of us can speak with courageous presence, with wisdom and with love. We can all learn to become masters in the use of what my Buddhist friends call deep listening and mindful speech.

Useful links: about the Gingrich memo.

Aristotle’s Rhetoric, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln, edited, and with a biographical essay by Philip Van Doren Stern.

Hannah Ahrendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language.

Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works - The Politics of Us and Them.

Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American.

Tara Brach, Audio on mindful speech. “How we relate to each other can either bring an experience of heaven, of freedom, of loving, of creativity, of mystery, of beauty, of adventure, or it can be a contraction where we are stuck in a very small sense of self … that is hell.”

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People, the most influential self-help book ever written (from 1936), full of common sense. “Any fool can criticise, condemn and complain – and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving. ‘A great man shows his greatness,’ said Carlyle, ‘by the way he treats little men.’” The first and foremost principle that Carnegie proposes is: “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.” Carnegie was also a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln, and it shows in the book.