Hyperbole, Hysteria and Hatred
With yet another deranged lunatic having decided that the best way to get attention is to shoot up a school and murder people, it’s time to look at the role played by the increasingly heated rhetoric that characterizes political, cultural and social debate in this country.
Politicians, admittedly, have done this forever. They demonize their opponents and warn the electorate that electing Candidate B instead of Candidate A will have dire consequences for the city/state/country. Disagreements over policy are routinely spun into moral failings. It has gotten much worse in recent decades; political opponents now compare other candidates to mass-murdering dictators or accuse them (and the party they belong to) of the most malevolent possible motivations. Former President George W. Bush was often compared to Hitler. During the 2012 presidential campaign, studiously wonky Paul Ryan, Republican Mitt Romney’s running mate, was accused of wanting to “push granny off a cliff” — including an infamous political ad that showed exactly that. It’s not possible for a national election cycle to go by without hearing that this or that candidate hates entire segments of the population, doesn’t care about struggling families or wants poor children to starve.
But nothing can compare to the reaction to Donald Trump’s election, which can only be described as mass hysteria. On his inauguration day and for weeks thereafter, Washington, D.C., and other cities were roiled by riots and violence. People sat in the streets and screamed. Windows were broken, cars set on fire. Johnny Depp and Madonna made unfunny jokes about actors killing presidents and blowing up the White House.
Why? Because Trump’s opponents had decided that the usual political hyperbole wasn’t strong enough, so Trump had to be painted as Satan incarnate who would not stop until he had destroyed the country and democracy with it.
And the public bought it hook, line and sinker.
It would be bad enough were these trends confined to politicians or politics generally. But they aren’t. It isn’t merely the politicians themselves who are evil and to be despised; it’s now their donors, their supporters and anyone who votes for them. Former President Barack Obama called Americans who opposed his policies “bitter” people who “cling to their guns and their religion.” Hillary Clinton called Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables.” President Joe Biden’s Justice Department is targeting conservatives, pro-life Christians and irate parents objecting to pornography in schools, warning that they are potential “domestic terrorists.”
Academics seeking tenure publish outrageous social “theories” that smear wide swaths of the population, accusing them of every conceivable form of hatred. These theories then seep out into the general culture, where they are treated as some kind of dogma that cannot be challenged or questioned, only accepted and used as the basis for public policy.
Activists have become accusatory to the point of irrationality. You must overhaul your life in accordance with their computer-generated models of “climate change,” “overpopulation” and “mass starvation,” or else everyone on the planet is going to die. (Pay no attention to decades of flawed and failed predictions of similar catastrophes.) If you believe that children need a married mother and a father, reject the notion that “gender is a social construct,” insist that a man cannot become a woman (or vice versa) despite pharmaceutical or even surgical intervention, you are a (fill-in-the-blank)-phobe who has “blood on your hands.”
Terminology takes on quasi-criminal tones: Misunderstandings or perceived slights are “microaggressions.” Due process in campus sexual assault cases is “another form of rape.” And then there’s the all-purpose rage inflator: “Words are violence.”
This is irresponsible and dangerous. Politicians may not believe their own press packages, and social cynics may laugh all the way to the bank, but much of the public believes what they are being told, and they are reacting accordingly.
One horrible irony is that some of those who subscribe to the “words are violence” school of thought are so offended by the mere existence of opposing viewpoints that they feel justified — with alarming frequency — in resorting to actual violence. Antifa mobs have made careers out of this in city after city across the country, insisting that they are preventing fascism by rioting, breaking windows, burning down buildings and beating up innocent bystanders. Jane’s Revenge and other pro-abortion groups have been firebombing and vandalizing crisis pregnancy centers. Conservative speakers are shouted down on college campuses — and some have been physically attacked.
I want to be clear that the only person I am holding responsible for the killings at the Covenant School in Nashville is the woman who pulled the trigger. But her rampage appears to have been fueled by a sordid combination of mental illness and manufactured hysteria. Mental illness needs to be treated. The manufactured hysteria needs to stop.
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