Watching coverage of Donald Trump’s announcement that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had died as a result of a U.S. raid in northern Syria was an eye-opener. And an awful reminder.
He kept talking, then took questions and talked some more. Soon after his official statement, he was riffing on how exactly al-Baghdadi had died: “Whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.” Further, “He was a gutless animal,” “he died in a vicious and violent way, as a coward, running and crying” and “he died like a dog.”
It was both juvenile and barbaric. And this taunting rhetoric is aimed at a bloodthirsty terrorist organization that is still active. It is meant to humiliate and will possibly impel a reaction. It is madness to use such language that could obligate revenge.
As we all know, fact-checking Trump’s speeches and statements is an industry unto itself. Vast acres of newsprint and even larger areas online are devoted to telling readers how he has lied, exaggerated or mischaracterized.
It hasn’t made a whit of difference. So much that was weird or unimaginable before Trump is now normalized. Almost daily he continues to lie and exaggerate. You can’t turn on the TV and not be aware of it. What isn’t given scrutiny is his actual language. That language is loaded to the point of barbarism and is responsible for the descent into political partisanship that is, at this point, barbaric itself.
Thing is, while facts are checked, the inflammatory language of Trump is rarely challenged. There’s a school of punditry that talks about “civility," but that term is irrelevant now. It’s about language. Fact-checking is easy compared with effective denunciation of words, phrases and vocabulary. Putting a stop to ugly and dangerous phraseology is damn hard and especially hard for TV and online media because both feed off extreme language.
Yet the rhetoric and derisive language the U.S. President used on the weekend slides by. There seems to be general confusion now about what are remarkable or outlandish statements that should be queried and confronted. Last week on CNN, Wolf Blitzer challenged Beto O’Rourke on referring to Trump as a “Russian asset” and O’Rourke drawing parallels between the Trump presidency and Nazi Germany. Blitzer asked, “Is that not going too far, to make a comparison between the President of the United States and the Nazis?” O’Rourke called his phrasing “the comparison of last resort” and says he stood by it.
A peculiar, infuriating unwritten set of rules seems to exist currently. The person who talks about Hitler or the Third Reich is challenged automatically. Everything else generates an eye-roll or merits a joke on the late-night talk show monologues.
Language has consequence and we – all of us, not just all-news TV pundits, reporters, anchors – seem befuddled on the matter. O’Rourke believes he understands the connection between language and action. He blamed the Aug. 3 mass shooting that targeted Latino immigrants in his hometown of El Paso on the anti-immigrant message in Trump’s rhetoric. But he’s called out when he says this: “This idea from Goebbels and Hitler that the bigger the lie and the more often you repeat it, the more likely people are to believe it, that is Donald Trump to a T.” According to Blitzer, “Most people would say that is unacceptable.”
In Canada, we are far from immune to this deadly confusion about language. Three days after the federal election, the campaign office of Liberal MP Catherine McKenna was defaced with a vulgar four-letter slur painted in large red letters. TV cameras didn’t actually show the slur but we all knew what it was and how profoundly demeaning it was.
McKenna has rightly been vocal about the kind of abuse directed at her online and in person. As Environment Minister, she was viciously attacked on a continuing basis. A particular element of the abuse has its origins in Conservative MP Gerry Ritz referring to her as “climate Barbie” on social media in 2017. He later apologized and deleted his remark. But the slur stuck. That’s how it works with barbaric, hateful language. It’s said, then withdrawn after negative reaction but it has been given room to breathe and grow. Notably, Andrew Scheer wasn’t quite as quick as Ritz to apologize. Ritz acted 30 minutes after McKenna cited the language as unacceptable, and Scheer acted the following day.
There is no easy way to curb the creeping ascent of barbaric language to the common vernacular in politics and cultural debate, and the right-wing populists don’t have a monopoly on this matter. The left and progressives can be as arcane and divisive in their language debates as the right is sinister. A good start would be TV anchors and interviewers halting abhorrent language by shutting it down when it is uttered. Maybe simply by saying, “that’s juvenile” or “that’s barbaric”, and cutting off the speaker.