I’m going to be real, here. Watching the rhetorical situation change over the last few years has been absolutely WILD from the perspective of teaching communication concepts in a university classroom as well as working through these things within this project. It’s been both fascinating and disturbing to see what it takes to teach students the basic principles of communication in a world where fascistic rhetoric is attempting to portray facts, ethics, and empathy as partisan, as well as to moderate online discussions in this era. In today’s blog post I hope to unwrap a few of those weird dynamics in the hopes of encouraging reasonable people to avoid ceding unnecessary linguistic territory to the right wing, especially when it comes to ideas that our civil and democratic society are based on, such as offering respect to people’s right to hold differing opinions.
Understanding the Territory Because of My Background and Training
Okay, so as always, I’m coming at this from the perspective of a pastor’s kid raised in a right-leaning moderate Evangelical church who went on to become a communication scholar.
Most important to the present conversation out of these things is that I grew up in Midwest Christian white person Nice (I first talked about the toxic side of these concepts here). Currently, I teach the principles of communication to students who come from across the political spectrum. Since my classroom is at a university, it’s important to keep what I teach consistent, fact-based, ethical, and evidence-based, and non-partisan.
At the same time, for more than 5 years I’ve been posting memes on the Assertive Spirituality Facebook page, blogging here, and moderating the comment section.
In an era where facts and ethics themselves have been politicized by the right, both of these have been interesting tasks, to say the least.
It’s Not Usually About the Words Themselves, but the Abuse
Here’s one of the things we discuss regularly in my classroom: language is constantly shifting in meaning, and there’s no way to healthily control the way others interpret things.
Another important principle is this–different groups of people often interpret the same words in entirely different ways. Some may use the same language to help or to hurt others.
The reality, unfortunately, as both of those things teach us, is that abusers (and fascists) can use ANYTHING linguistic to abuse others. In fact, as with spiritual abuse, unhealthy individuals often prey on people while trying to claim the moral high ground, which can particularly mess with people’s heads.
Why People Get Allergic to Certain Language That’s Been Abused a Lot
Now, it makes total sense, from a stress, trauma, and conflict communication perspective (since that’s what I study), that we reasonable people would develop an allergy to reasonable language when it’s abused in these ways.
The Case for Standing Our Linguistic Ground When We Can
The thing is, it’s rarely the language that’s at fault in these situations. Sure, in the case of blatantly discriminatory language, yes, we should avoid using that. But in other situations, it’s very important we learn to address our allergies and stand our ground in refusing to give up linguistic ground.
This is especially the case when perfectly good facts, ethical ideas, etc. are being twisted. Even more so when the basic ideas of a civil democratic society are being subtly attacked. (I’m getting to that—hang in there!)
Understanding These Concepts From the Perspective of Trauma Recovery
Anyway, anyone who’s been in recovery from covert abuse, or trauma that took place in otherwise healthy settings, likely understands why this concept is so important.
See, it’s especially frustrating when previous healthy coping mechanisms you have for dealing with the world, really objectively lovely words or ideas or practices that helped you get through things in a good way for a time, get wrapped into the trauma simply by association with danger or abuse.
Anyone who’s tried to form healthy relationships after an unhealthy relationship understands how this works. Often one’s brain tries to associate being relationally vulnerable AT ALL with danger. Which—well, we need to be vulnerable for healthy engagement with the world, even though not every person or situation is healthy to be vulnerable with.
It’s just not that relationships as a whole are the problem any more than perfectly good language that works well in some circumstances but is abused in others is the problem.
Refusing to Throw Out the Good Stuff
So yeah, in order to recover from this kind of collateral damage of trauma—when one’s brain tries to throw out completely healthy things because they’re associated with unhealthy things in the past—it’s necessary to sort through the things your mind is classifying as associated with danger, so you don’t sabotage yourself by avoiding completely normal and good things long term.
When Fascists Try to “Sully” Reasonable Things So We’ll Reject Them
Thinking about how all of this works is really helpful for me in unwrapping what’s been going on in the religio-political sphere. Because fascists know this, at least on a visceral level, and it’s pretty clear to me that on a visceral level they try to “sully” as many reasonable things as possible to take over that linguistic territory and get progressives to give up ideas that were previously “theirs.”
You know, the same as “regular” abusers do.
The Importance of Reclaiming Linguistic Ground Where We Can
In these situations, I’ve discovered, effective resistance requires reclaiming good words that have been twisted by abusers and fascists rather than ceding linguistic ground.
Go Team Snowflake!
A great recent example of doing this effectively by reasonable folks is the rhetoric around the left being seen as “Snowflakes.” I dearly love seeing progressives refusing to back down when they claim that term with pride.
Let’s Do the Same with “Respect for Opinions,” PLEASE???
I really really believe we reasonable folks need to do the same thing around this other idea the right has been trying to claim lately. This is the idea that “letting everyone have their own opinions, and offering respect to people for that.”
Recognizing How Much Connotative Ground the Right Has Claimed on Opinions Rhetoric
Because d*mn, folks. I posted a meme along these lines on the AS Facebook page this week, and my progressive audience positively ERUPTED with concerns that the page suddenly might be espousing bigotry, anti-science rhetoric, or January 6. (We absolutely DON’T!)
Which, just to repeat, to be absolutely clear, as any follower knows, nope, this project is deeply opposed to all of those things.
These deeply passionate interactions with progressive followers on the Facebook page about this topic showed me how far the right has moved to claiming the meaning around this phrase about the need to respect differing opinions. See, really, it feels like when you actually disconnect the words from the unhealthy set of connotations the right has been attempting to drape around them, accepting this phrase ought to sort of be a no brainer.
The Importance of Looking at the Phrase On Its Own
When you remove all that toxic sh*te, and just look at the idea that remains, THIS idea is absolutely the basis of living in an actually free society with free speech and democracy.
In fact, the opposite of this idea, at its extreme, is absolutely the representation of a totalitarian state.
Yup, Right-wing Folks Have Been Hard at Work Trying to Make Us Allergic to the Phrase
What the right has abused this idea for, of course, is to excuse themselves for beating others up using completely non-evidence-based ideas, mind you.
They have used it to try to put bigotry and discrimination and unhealthy conspiracy rhetoric on the same playing field as ethical and evidence-based ideas.
They’ve used this idea to try to escape accountability for treason and breaking the law.
Believe you me, I’m super aware of all that. (I do, after all, study rhetoric, friends. And like I said, I come from where I come from as well.)
Resisting by Reclaiming the Phrase While Shedding the Sh*tty Connotations
But this is the fact I know extremely well, from emerging from the background I have, and from my studies and teaching of communication principles.
We don’t have to accept any of that connotative garbage as the truth when we reclaim the phrase.
We don’t have to give up this phrase about the right for everyone to hold opinions and have basic respect for that and its VERY TRUE healthier meaning because the right is being an ass about what they are insisting it mean.
Really Important to Be Stubborn Like That
If we do that, we retreat from one of the most central concepts of a civil society.
Because the truth is, we can’t healthily control right-wing folks and their opinions, no matter how unhealthy without becoming authoritarians ourselves.
Holding to the Truth of This Phrase DOES NOT MEAN We Don’t Push Back
We may absolutely—and, I would argue, SHOULD—push back when we know they’re being manipulative with this kind of phrase to mean unhealthy things.
And we need to hold them accountable when they discriminate and commit treason and espouse really unhealthy policies.
But we need to reclaim the actual healthy connotations of this phrase, and fight back by using it in real and healthy ways. Because when you remove the right-wing garbage from it, there’s an absolute ethical truth at the heart of this phrase about the need to allow everyone to have their opinions and respect their right to do so.
It’s Not Our Job to Be the Thought Police, Is the Thing
The truth is that while we absolutely should work to hold people accountable for unhealthy rhetoric and policies, it’s not mine or anyone else’s job to make anyone give up their conspiracy theories or bigoted opinions.
I WANT to live in a society where everyone can believe what they want.
Let’s Work on Influencing Policies and Such Instead
I also want to live in a society where people are held accountable when they discriminate against others.
Where people are brought to justice when they commit treason and try to create fascist states.
Why Are We Giving Their Interpretation Power, Anyway?
The thing those abusing this phrase want you to believe is that only their interpretation—only their opinion, as it were—of this phrase is valid.
I refuse to buy that in any way.
Breaking Down the False Dichotomies
Ultimately, what they’re setting up here is an incredibly false dichotomy about both the concepts of opinions and respect.
In the process, they’re trying to get reasonable folks to look fascist by rejecting the very principle of free speech.
Listen, I get the temptation to bite on that. To accept their premise.
I see how they’re trying to use people’s natural stress responses about abuses of this phrase to see this phrase as inherently dangerous. To get our brains to automatically drape the phrase with their own disturbing cocktail of unhealthy connotations.
Fighting Back Against Linguistic Manipulation
But this is my call to action—we need to fight back when we catch them at this kind of game.
If we don’t, we’ll ultimately paint ourselves into a linguistic corner where we actually give them MUCH more power over language than they deserve.
Time to Snowflake Up and Take Back Our Linguistic Agency
It’s past time, friends, to snowflake up and redeem this phrase from right-wing clutches.
Because here’s the thing. We can hold to the reasonable meaning of this phrase without giving up any ground. Because they don’t own this phrase, and they can’t force us to accept their meaning.
We don’t have to give into their attempts to get us to do that.
Proposing a Healthier Viewpoint
We can completely respect people’s humanity and their right to hold opinions without agreeing with them, finding their ideas just or ethical, or thinking that means they should go scot-free for horrendous behavior.
We simply and absolutely can do that.
What It Will Take to Win Persuadable People Over
And, in fact, if we ever want to win over the more persuadable folks, the ones that were socialized into a crapload of unhealthy stuff but are actually willing to learn something different, starting with this baseline of respecting people’s right to hold opinions even while we push back on unhealthy ones is absolutely crucial to doing so.
No Need to Do or Believe Anything Unethical to Reclaim This Phrase
Note that we do not need to cede anything when it comes to unhealthy behavior or policies in any of this.
Acknowledging that we genuinely can give space for people to hold opinions, and offer respect to them for that as we’re able doesn’t mean we have to say they’re believing or doing what’s right in the process.
If We Want to Be Ethical…
The truth is, changing people’s minds by force is deeply unethical. So if we want to be ethical, we don’t have much choice about reclaiming this concept.
In addition, as ALL the dystopian novels illustrate, it simply does not work. You can’t ethically make someone believe the same as you.
So I honestly don’t see a reasonable way to cede reasonable meanings of this phrase.
It’s time to take it back, folks. The truth is that everyone absolutely is entitled to their own opinions. AND we can respect that right while pushing back against the unhealthy stuff that’s too often associated with unhealthy, unjust, and unethical abuses of opinions.
What Other Examples Are Out There?
This week, I encourage you to look around you at the ways the right-wing is trying to put us on the defensive linguistically. What things used to mean more reasonable things, and now only remind you of the right wing connotations?
I would love to hear your examples in the comments.
A Final Charge
Let’s refuse to give linguistic ground, friends!
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. Let’s just make sure we don’t cede truth, facts, or ethical statements we don’t need to give way on in doing so. We can do this thing.
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