Choking on Our Words

My words are failing me. Writing, of course, is only a proxy for understanding the world. But, as it teeters on a precipice, I’m trying to find words that will make sense of it. No matter what our politicians tell us, the world is not black and white. Instead, it’s full of grays. We encounter these shades of gray daily, but are often blind to them. And, our words reflect that.

Logic and intelligent commentary have been consumed by reactionary rhetoric. Truth and discourse are eroding. “Alternative facts,” said with straight faces, are maddening. Words are given no respect; they’re tossed around without much thought, but with a lot of anger. And, finding our voices has become more difficult. That’s why so many are yelling.

Fear Everything, Blame Everyone, © 2014 Jeff Gates, Chamomile Tea Party

I’m an artist. And for the past seven years, politics has been my exclusive subject. Under the guise of the Chamomile Tea Party, I take old propaganda posters and remix them with new text and imagery about the sorry state of American political discourse. Finding the right words is critical to my work.

After the election, suddenly I was amassing a huge backlog of material for my posters, provided every day by Trump’s tweets and Mitch McConnell’s and Paul Ryan’s plans to remake this country into a rich man’s paradise. Each unbelievable pronouncement was more incredible than the one before. That’s when I first noticed words failing me. The GOP’s dismantling of citizens’ safeguards seemed disastrous and transparent; and worse, they were conveyed without any conscience. “Hyperbole,” “hypocrisy,” and “hubris” lost their meanings. I keep searching for stronger words, expressions that have retained their gravitas. But, I’m having a hard time finding any.

New York Times writer Paul Herrman states political discourse is being weaponized, both by the right as well as the left. No one is safe, he says, and “the fabric of civilian life is now wrapped in a linguistic fog of war.” That fog has turned to smog and the air has become rancid with vitriol. Words are being used as threats. The right uses phrases like “political correctness” and “lame media” as convenient weapons against any compromise. While on the left, many use “racist” as a mark of scorn, like Hester Prynn’s scarlet letter, but a mark devoid of context.

This past spring, students at The Evergreen College in Washington state chanted “racist” when they called for the dismissal of Professor Bret Weinstein, a Bernie Sanders supporter, for questioning their demand that all white students leave campus during the college’s annual Day of Absence. Up until this year, people of color volunteered to leave campus to discuss important issues of race and status, returning to honor diversity with a Day of Presence. In a video shot of this confrontation, Weinstein says to the students, “There is a difference between debate and dialectic. Debate means you are trying to win; dialectic means you are using disagreement to discover what is true. I’m not interested in debate. I am only interested in dialectic, which means I listen to you and you listen to me.” A student is heard to yell, “I don’t care what you want to speak on. This isn’t about you.” How does one respond to that? The president of Evergreen, George Bridges, stated in a New York Times interview, “Using the word ‘racist’ halts the conversation. It just ends it.” It’s a powerful word and, when used indiscriminately, it loses its meaning and obfuscates our search for solutions.

According to Justin Gest, author of The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality, this explains why the white working class’ devotion to Trump remains steadfast. In a Washington Post podcast Gest said, “For [the white working class] racism has become an instrument of silence. It’s a way of invalidating people. By saying someone’s a racist it means they cease to matter—don’t listen to them.” Indifference, too, is maddening. Trump, he says, is saying these people matter and this is why poor whites continue to support him. Racism is one of America’s most entrenched and serious problems. But, instead of using words to connect and discuss, we are using them to separate and isolate. The incident at Evergreen as well as Donald Trump’s ongoing political rallies of his base both embrace an ideology of exclusion. Our words are reinforcing an unsustainable black and white world.

As a progressive, I’m tiptoeing through a cultural minefield. Both the left’s politically correct orthodoxy and the right’s intransigence are corrosive. So, where do I stand? It’s not somewhere between those two extremes. It’s not that simple. I’m somewhere else—between anger and curiosity and between our fears and our truths—weaving my way through those nuanced grays. I’m trying to interpret what we’re experiencing and, along the way, my understanding may change after every new development. Under these circumstances, finding the right words is a Sisyphean task.

Last week, a Facebook friend and ardent Bernie supporter posted: “I’m told I’m nuts for assuming people who promoted [Hillary Clinton] agreed with her policies.” I supported Clinton, but didn’t agree with many of her positions. Should I respond and risk the wrath from ideologues that could result in an exhausting war of words? I thought about it, dismissed my reticence, and jumped into the fray. As the campaign progressed I began to see a lot of things I didn’t like about Hillary. By the time they added up, she had the nomination and there was no other choice. With her defeat, I realized there has been a major paradigm shift. What I thought impossible has become reality: the American people voted against the status quo. The election outcome was not what I had wanted. But it opened up new possibilities. And my views are changing to embrace that shift.

But, instead of being chastised for faulty reasoning, I was actually heard. Someone immediately responded to my comment: “I’m just blown away to read someone on Facebook acknowledged opinions naturally develop and change.” My friend added, “This is the first honest and heartfelt response I’ve gotten.”

Being heard, as well as reflectively responding to other’s words, are very powerful experiences. Poor whites, African Americans, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and others want to have a voice. But after six months of the Trump Administration, we have replaced one set of entrenchments with another. We’ve lost trust in intelligent dialogue. The currency of meaning is worthless when it’s diminished by acts of hatred and anger. There are lines in the sand, of course, Charlottesville being the latest. But, in this polluted atmosphere, how can we know what words to use to define, act, and react to them? How do we know the difference between fear for our futures and ideological hatred? Every person and every act demands our scrutiny.

When people are surprised by honest statements acknowledging uncertainty and change, it’s clear we’ve lost our way. I’m fighting hard to make my way to higher ground, out of this filthy, smoggy air, to a place where we can communicate more constructively. It’s a dangerous time. As it stands, this air is making me sick. It’s making all of us sick. We’re choking on our own words.

If you would like a high resolution download of the poster in this story, it is available for free, as are all the Chamomile Tea Party posters.

This essay was originally published on CROSSIN(G)ENRES.

© 2001-2018 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074