Finding the Right Words in an Era of Outrage

Two days ago, the President of the United States demonstrated the underbelly of his vicious personality with an attack on a female reporter.

In response to a tweet about that incident from CBS News which suggested that the president “sparred” with Cecilia Vega, Daniel Dale, Washington correspondent for the Toronto Star wrote, “One of my Trump-era media pet peeves is when Trump belittles or insults someone and it’s described with words like ‘sparred’ or ‘feud’ even though the other person didn’t do anything.”

I agree 100-percent with Dale and think that the language we see from the media is as much about their need to present themselves as calm and thoughtful as it is about the kind of both-siderism that is often on display. In other words, they cling to the idea of being grown-ups while the president tantrums like a two year-old. The problem is, what do you do when he ramps it up even farther by mocking the victim of an alleged sexual assault?

How do you tell that story in a way that is calm and thoughtful? I don’t believe it’s possible.

Finding the words to describe the kind of racism and sexism that is on display in this Trump era has presented a challenge to the media. That’s why Adam Serwer wrote, “Just Say It’s Racist” in response to hedging on the topic from the New York Times. When it comes to the rest of us, John Blake has provided a fascinating exploration of the words we use in an article titled, “The Polite Way to Call Someone a Racist.”

During an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg yesterday, Hillary Clinton addressed the issue in a way that goes beyond the words we use.

In addition to the words we use to describe and react to someone like Donald Trump, there is the fact that capturing the outrage often feels like a game of Whack-a-Mole. We jump from reacting to racism to sexism to Islamophobia to homophobia, giving credence to the idea that the resistance is all about identity politics. Reacting to the outrage-du-jour also keeps us from developing a unifying message that brings us all together.

Back in 2007, I followed a blogger known as Nezua at the Unapologetic Mexican. He once wrote a series titled, “Let’s Have Nexus.” The blog is no longer accessible, but here’s how he described the challenge.

I prefer not to dally too long dissecting the symptoms of manifested underlying ills, but prefer to look directly at those broad reaching paradigms or beliefs that inform them, as regular readers here know. This is why I don’t comment extensively on today’s political back and forth—unless as it relates to the dialogue on racial dynamics that I explore and engage in on the regular… Because if we all are truly interested in forming an ongoing conversation that cuts away the the husk of empty discourse and scoops out the Essential, we have to look not only at the symptoms of hate, violence, authoritarian rule, and oppression, but at the seeds that inform them and keep them entrenched, as well as socially acceptable. These vines are by now thorny and tangled and hearty, but the seeds were planted long ago, and the nourishment is delivered by all of us, and every day.

Nezua found the nexus he was looking for in the book The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen.

I have spent the past several hours now thinking about the notion that masters “shall be entitled to their labor,” and at the risk of overstating, it seems to me that entitlement is key to nearly all atrocities, and that any threat to perceived entitlement will provoke hatred.

It seems obvious to most of us that the rage we witnessed from Brett Kavanaugh during his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee was sparked by a threat to his perceived entitlement. In a way that I have always found to be prescient, back in 2004 Jensen wrote about how the sense of entitlement moves from a chronic state to a more obvious manifestation.

From the perspective of those who are entitled, the problems begin when those they despise do not go along with—and have the power and wherewithal to not go along with—the perceived entitlement. …

Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, “normal,” chronic state—where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized.

Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remains underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.

Benjamin Wittes has written a powerful piece about why he no longer supports Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. In it, he describes two Brett Kavanaughs: the one he knew previously and we all saw in the hearings prior to Dr. Ford coming forward with her allegations of sexual assault, and the one we saw last Thursday. I can think of no better example of what happens when entitlement is threatened and goes from underground to obvious.

The good news is that the entitlement is being threatened. Everything from marriage equality to the #MeToo movement to BlackLivesMatter is challenging the white patriarchy. The bad news is that, just as Jensen predicted, hatred has been waiting in the wings and is ready to explode.

That is how I have come to understand the great challenge we face in this era of outrage. While I sometime find myself speechless in the shadow of the kind of hatred we’re seeing spewed on a daily basis, I agree with how Nezua concluded his series on finding nexus.

The time is now. A rot grows on our collective bounty, ghosts again rise from this mowed-over green. If we ignore them, they continue to animate our hands when we are not looking, they continue to poison us as we sleep.

We must know we are in a new time, where what we say and do and what forces we feed matter greatly. It always has been so. But now more than ever it is time to take a position, and to make an unmistakable stand.

If we haven’t already, it is time to take stock of the forces we feed, because they really do matter greatly. Doing so will give us the words to take an unmistakeable stand in this era of outrage.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.