How Shame and Imagination Can Save our Political Rhetoric
Pt. 1: Shame
The rhetoric of supporters always seems more interesting to me than the rhetoric of the actual candidates. In a lot of ways this is why the candidacy of Trump has been so effective: his rhetoric is much closer to that of a supporter (a troll) than of a candidate. A supporter’s facts can be opinions without fear that the candidate will suffer consequences. A supporter can be vicious and crude. A supporter can start fights. A supporter can be defensive and emotional. I think with all these layers of Manchurian obfuscation gone we often times see truer colors to the ideologies behind the candidate. For example: Trump does not represent the principles of the Republican party at all, but he does represent a simpler, higher contrast, and, possibly, clearer truth about the ideology of the modern Republican party.
So I thought I would look at the supporters of the Bernie and Hillary campaigns to try to understand the rhetoric of two groups of people who find themselves at the same party but obviously leave the party shaking their head and saying things behind the other one’s back that start with phrases like:
“I mean they’re nice, but…”
“I don’t know, I guess they’re fun, but…”
“I like them. I do. But I just…”
I figured focusing on what comes after the ellipses would illuminate some other side — some self-reflection. The stuff after the ellipses is the stuff you wish you had but don’t. Or the stuff you’re insecure about, or the stuff you want talk about in more depth because it’s really about you not about the other person.
The endings to my sentences that start with “I mean they’re nice, but…” are often things like: “they are so obsessed with being ‘right.’” or “they are so negative and dull.” or “they are always correcting people.” or “they spend way too much time discussing logistics.” I think this paints a pretty clear picture of where my own insecurities lie: I struggle with the idea of “facts,” worry I’m too autistic to be likable, I would feel most hurt by the adjective “boring,” and I think I’m the smartest/most righteous person in the room and feel attacked with people disagree.
Follow me for a second, we’re going on an important detour. I saw a headline the other day that said “Some Actress Bravely Says: ‘I’m not ashamed of this body thing that society doesn’t like.’” I’m not going to discuss female body shame because I don’t have the tools or the body parts to have an opinion worth hearing, but it made me think about this word “shame.” Obviously it’s great that she’s not ashamed of her body. That’s awesome. But it’s not brave to say you are unashamed. Or, maybe it is. But isn’t it braver to admit you areashamed of something? Doesn’t the true bravery come from pointing out exactly what you don’t like about yourself?
So, there are two important contexts to remember as we analyze the type of attacks leveled by Bernie and Hillary supporters.
1. Bernie has been the underdog, and therefore his supporters get to punch upward while Hillary supporters are on the defensive. This has less to do with the candidates platforms and more to do with their polling numbers going into this fight. But there is something interesting about how the rhetoric of the attack is altered, especially in a political party that prides itself on fighting for the underdog.
2. Bernie supporters are younger. Much younger. This means they occupy very different parts of the internet and are using a very different type of discourse. I’m going to try to control for this in my analysis my comparing reddit to reddit and twitter to twitter and so on instead of comparing cross-platform, but I can’t completely control for the fact that there are far more impulsive idiotic 19 year old bros for Bernie than for Hillary because there are more 19 year olds for Bernie. And similarly there are more stodgy confused word-police grandmas for Hillary because more grandmas are for Hillary.
The other day I watched my leftist mechanisms unfurl — my ingrained defensive bandwagon fetish played out right before my eyes. I think this thought process is pretty common on the left side of the political spectrum. I noticed it as a reaction to Macklemore’s new single: White Privilege II
As a liberal, my first reaction was:
“Yay! Bringing to light the issues of the oppressed!”
then, as a liberal, my second reaction was:
“Who is he to say this? I bet everyone loves him now. I’m gonna hate him to prove that I’m thinking deeper than him!”
then, as a liberal, my third reaction was:
“Who am I to hate him? I bet there is already a bandwagon of haters out there. I’m not joining their train. I’m my own unique flower! I love that song!!”
then, as a liberal, my fourth reaction was:
“Why are we talking about this oppressor so much? I don’t have to love this song just to avoid the bandwagon. I don’t hate this song, but I do hate that we’re talking about it.”
then, as a liberal, my fifth reaction was:
“I hope people think my perspective is nuanced and unique in a way that completely separates me from the hordes of sheeple.”
We should recognize that the left is the side of the bandwagon. And while I believe the bandwagon is better than the alternative of stagnation, I don’t think it comes without shame.
Dialogue. It’s getting boring. It feels like the same points are being brought up. So I created a helpful argument flowchart to allow you to argue the points on your own in case you have no one to argue with!!
Let’s do two case studies of the most viral anti-supporter articles written over the past couple of weeks. The first one we’ll look at isthis all-caps explosion of feeling about how if Bernie Sanders was a woman she would have to deal with age old coded language of “hysterical” and “delusional” and “obnoxious.” The points the author makes not only ignores the evidence but actively refutes it, so let’s first take that to task.
1. Bernie is and has regularly, throughout his career, been referred to as a crazy kook by the media and the Republicans. He has been painted as “obnoxious,” and “rude” by even those from the left.
2. Saying that if a woman said these things she’d struggle to gain the momentum that Bernie is gaining is ignoring the amazing women who do spout similar views and morals in the same tone. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz has been fighting the good fight for a while without blowback from the left. Elizabeth Warren has been espousing Bernie’s “delusions” for just as long and when the Bernie announced the beginning of his campaign Warren was polling around 3 times as high as Bernie despite the fact that she wasn’t running. (Here’s one, I found more before, but this is pretty clear).
BUT on the other hand this article speaks to a much larger problem that needs to be addressed. The author, who is a woman writer on the internet, is so nervous about the blowback for being a strong-willed woman that she feels the need to write an all-caps defensive attack on sexism’s continued prevalence in political discourse. This is her own personal journey. And it’s an important one. The real reason that this article resonated with so many people is less because it’s true and more because it felt true. Which is a byproduct of passion. Which is a byproduct of personal experience. Which is more true than “truth” anyway. The outlet of an attack on Bernie Sanders’ supporters as unwilling to support a female doing her best feels like it obfuscates a much more important dialogue. What if instead she had written an all-caps defensive attack about how the internet responds to women who voice their opinions, and how that usually changes the way she writes as a journalist — how the shaming of women journalists will eventually lead to a volume discrepancy in women’s issues. I feel like that would have been powerful, true, and relatable. And I wouldn’t have felt like I had to refute her because she wasn’t claiming what she thought I would say but rather simply explaining how she responds to the world she’s been given.
Unfortunately, it also wouldn’t have been shared as widely because it doesn’t refer to this trending debate between two celebrities.
On the other side of this debate we have the widely shared: “There are no such thing as BernieBro, Bro. Stop spreading this rumor!” article. (There are a couple, and Glen Greenwald’s is the most thorough, but the one I linked is one I saw shared the most). Again this article touched a nerve despite being totally untrue. There arerooms on the internet, and they aren’t dark corners, where men defend their vote for Bernie Sanders in language that forces the debate to be about gender — who claim that Hillary’s only qualification is her vagina — who offer up that she uses the gender card like a running license, and that her supporters have no moral compass but simply want a woman in office. These people exist and they aren’t a tiny minority either. They are not the main people, nor are they the loudest, but to claim that they are a rumor that was invented by the DNC political machine is to ignore the hurtful way in which these BernieBros have acted. It is downplaying the pain and anguish that they have caused, and it is ignoring the means while looking ahead to the ends.
This idea that Hillary would not have the support she has if she were not on the path to being the 1st female president is definitely a constant conversation in Bernie camps. I exist in those camps, and that conversation happens. Definitely. Let’s not pretend it doesn’t. I’ve heard men and women voice this frustration.
Imagine instead if the author had written about his insecurities surrounding the word “Bro.” The times he’s felt like an outsider to the dominant masculine culture and how that shaped his own political perspective — a belief in outsider politics that came from feminism. How that train of thought led to his support and faith in the Sanders revolution and how this marrying of the enemy and the savior — the saint and the devil — felt like it minimized the importance of his narrative — a thing he’s been clinging to as needing to be important because otherwise: “why… anything?”
It would have been more powerful. It might not have been shared, but I would have liked it.
So, what does the rhetoric of the attack tell us about campaigns? I don’t know. I got distracted by shame. But I did do a little research via a poll I put out to some Sanders and Clinton supporters. The poll essentially asks you to read some statements and rank how offended you are.
Both sides were equally offended by stuff, for the most part. But there were some key questions that hurt one side significantly more than the other. I’ll list them here:
–Hillary Clinton has rolled over on gay marriage, healthcare, and the war. 4 more years of the oligarchy!
Hillary supporters were wayyyyyy more offended by this.
–If you think a crazy socialist from vermont stands a chance in the general election, you haven’t been paying attention to American Politics. Let’s stand together against these Trumpeters
Sanders supporters were way (less, but still) more offended by this.
–stop using your genitals as a defense! I would vote for a woman if she stood up for just causes. I’d vote for Elizabeth Warren
Hillary supporters were way more offended by this.
-Shillary Clinton and her supporters are just going to bend over to whoever buys them out!
Sanders supporters (Not a Typo) were wayyyyyyyyy more offended by this.
The only conclusion I feel like I can draw from this is that the stuff we’re insecure about offends us more. The first statement was found more offensive by Hillary Supporters than the genitals one. It seems to touch a nerve. And the “crazy socialist” statement was deemed just as offensive as one that said “#BernieBros need to STFU about how ‘progressive’ they are.” I think even the last one points to something that the Bernie supporters are worried they might have to worry about with their own candidate. Though they are not worried about being in the pocket of big bank, they worry that Bernie isn’t clean of all special interests.
I have a dystopia that I believe is a utopia that I would enact as dictator. It would be my first action. I would dismantle all the prisons, courthouses, and “our” lady justice and replace it with a guilt system. It would function like this: If at any point somebody did you wrong, hurt you, effected you negatively, you could call them to the guilt chamber. A warrant for their detainment would be put out and they would be told to go to a state-run guilt chamber — which was a small room with a chair and bright lights. Anybody who felt hurt or effected or annoyed by the actions of the individual in the guilt-chamber could line up to tell off the “guilted” however they wanted for as long as they wanted. When there were no more people waiting to “guilt” the “guilted” their sentence would be served and the would be free to leave. There are more rules to the timing and bureaucracy that I have outlined in a notebook somewhere and if you are interested you can email me and I’ll send you the short story someday.
That’s all to say:
I believe in the power of guilt, and maybe shame is a manifestation of my desire to be in power of my guilt. Shame is, in its own way, empowering because it asks us to control the narrative of our guilt instead of letting our guilt control us.
So I imagine a world where our political discourse is a self-refelctive journey into what guilt-ridden experiences in our lives have led us to believe in and support the people we end up supporting.
I’ll do my own attempt here:
I’m scared of rich people. And I’m not nice to them. When I walk around Wall St. I purposely run into large men with tattoos and suits and blackberries, and then I say things like: “Say you’re sorry” and they think that I am demanding that they apologize for running into me, but I know I’m demanding that they apologize for having too much money and destroying the world. And then they respond by saying: “go fuck yourself” and I back off quickly. I don’t trust people with money. This was engrained in me at a young age — the son of a dad raised by union people and a mom raised without money. We all wore sweatshirts when you were supposed to wear a tie. My mom’s biggest fear is having to walk in heels, and my dad’s biggest fear is someone telling him that his hair is too long. I don’t trust rich people because I grew up in a tourist town where the rich visited and the rest of us lived. And when they came they didn’t understand that all the people serving them their bagels and lobsters and wine and breakfast were people who went back to their houses and not their summer houses. At 14 I was in the work force during the summer and I learned quickly that rich people were stupid because they hadn’t joined the work force. The didn’t think about space the same way the rest of us did. They wouldn’t realize when they were cutting in line. If a cereal box fell off the shelf they wouldn’t pick it up because that was someone else’s problem. They ate food that they didn’t know how to make, and didn’t learn how to make. They asked people to do things for them when other people were in the middle of doing things for themselves. And it wasn’t like they were mean, they were just rich — and therefore stupid. They had servants instead of friends, how could you be smart? They played basketball in their private gym instead of at the YMCA. Their summer houses had more rooms than our houses so they didn’t understand what to do when people were on top of each other. And they were bad with money. They spent it on toys and yachts, expensive lobster, carriage rides from slave-horses, the dumb restaurant with pretty plates and the good view. they didn’t think about how much things cost, and so therefore they were dumb.
I need two charts to explain why I want Bernie Sanders to defeat Hillary Clinton and become the democratic nominee:
and, this is how their money raised stacks up:
Bernie has raised about half, but spent about a fourth. He is better at spending money. Because he’s not as rich. That’s who I want to be president a person who is smart because they are not rich. A person who knows how to pick up the cereal box if it falls on the floor because they are not rich.
My reasons are simple and they are my own. I don’t believe in rich people — I think they are stupid and don’t know how to handle money. I think they spend it poorly. After college, Bernie was a documentary filmmaker. Hillary went to law school and then became a lawyer.
That’s my reason. It is based on my history. It is subjective and true and beautiful and me. And I love my reason. But to admit it to you feels shameful. Like I shouldn’t be telling you this because this is not the “right” reason. This is a shameful reason — to vote out of hate. And not even hate for a person, but for a type of person who you have no real reason to hate. I’m ashamed. But I’m proud of my shame.
Pt. 2: Imagination
I originally wanted to look at the rhetoric of Hillary supporters and Bernie supporters because I felt like it would give me insight into this battle I feel consumed and confused by regularly. When people from the normal world around me ask me details about myself it stresses me out. I realize that at some point that in order to describe where I live I’m going to have to explain that I live in a collective home with 9 people where we have house-meetings weekly to discuss our emotional states and try to feel like a family. I’m going to have to explain that I work regularly on Saturdays and then take on different opportunities throughout the year in order to cobble together an income that seems sufficient to me. I’m going to have to defend that I’m not worried about long-term security. I’m going to have to say that I’m having a weddingything but we didn’t buy rings and might not fill out the paperwork and we don’t want to call it a wedding. I’m going to have to say that I eat mostly vegetarian but don’t believe in rules so “sure I’ll try oxtail.” I might have to explain that I sometimes go dumpster-diving even though I have plenty of money for food — I just think it’s a shame to waste so much food. I might have to explain that I don’t have a credit card and that I wasn’t planning on getting one. I might have to say that I don’t really like the term wife, or girlfriend, or fiancee, or partner — I would prefer to use the word “lover,” but I get that that sounds ridiculous, although I don’t know why.
The problem isn’t just that I have to explain myself, but that I can see the other person’s face as I’m doing it:
First it’s judgy of my lifestyle, then it’s annoyed, then it becomes this mix of guilt and defensiveness because they start assuming that my lifestyle is an inherent judgement of theirs.
My fears are backed up by evidence as there are far more blog articles about how annoying “judgy vegans” are than there are actual “judgy vegans.” And there is a rash of masculinists who feel angered by their falsely perceived judgement by feminists.
I heard someone recently call this “square rage” and I like that. I like the idea that sometimes the status quo and the normies are in cahoots to keep imagination in check and when the world of possibilities extends beyond what is happening in the present they feel anger because it flies in the face of the basic assumptions they’ve made.
But in terms of Bernie/Hillary the rage seems to be manifesting more like this:
Hillary Supporter: A square is a square!
Bernie Supporter: But a rectangle includes squares and other shapes.
Hillary Supporter: Why are you talking about how other rectangles exist? You are just going to confuse other people. Not me, of course, but other people won’t like that kind of talk!
I felt like looking at the rhetoric of their supporters would be interesting because it seemed as though both camps agreed politically, but had this fundamental difference in ideology between pragmatism and idealism. I thought looking at the language of these people would give me insight into what language is used by the “practical” and what language is used by the “dreamer.” Though I think that this dichotomy is more nuanced. The pragmatists are of a school of thought that change is measured in action, whereas the idealists think that change is measured in thought. The pragmatists fear the feeling of failure whereas idealists fear the feeling of resignation. Pragmatists love accomplishment whereas idealists love discovery.
I am an idealist. Fully. Though I think of it as a pragmatic reaction to existential ennui. I feel like it is the only practical way to continue after you realize that you are simply a speck of meaningless dust that can and will never affect the world around you — all you have is your imagination and therefore you should live your life inside the place where your dreams are born.
I’m also a Bernie supporter. That’s not because I agree wholeheartedly with everything he has to say. I think Ta-Nehisi Coates’ point about reparations is exactly on point because I am an idealist and I want Bernie to be too. I think Bernie’s socialist model feels somewhat antiquated as the student loan bubble is about to burst. I think he is right about most things, but I think his focus is often times off. In short: I agree with all of his policies and thoughts but I wished he talked about breaking up private lenders more than he talked about breaking up banks. I wish he discussed the culture of creating and meeting quantitative goals being a part of the prison industrial complex and structural racism instead of simply talking about “non-violent offenders.” I wish he had more of a stance on creating alternative educational models beyond just “funding schools more.” I also wish Elizabeth Warren was running. I like her more. I just think she’s smarter than Bernie. I also like Bernie because he sounds like my dad and he says the same things as my dad.
But I am a Bernie supporter and if I was a registered Democrat I would vote for him in the NY primary, but I stand by my ideology of the ridiculousness of a two party system and will simply vote for him in general election if I get that chance.
But the rhetoric is interesting.
I took 15 facebook posts from Bernie supporters and 15 from Hillary supporters to analyze the different ways that they express themselves. For the most part the results aren’t hugely different. Maybe if I had a bigger sample size I could make more clear conclusions. Two significant things popped up though:
- Bernie supporters are organizers and are organizing more than Hillary supporters.
This isn’t very surprising as he is the outsider candidate. He is the one that is sympathizing with revolution, so it makes sense that there would be more of a demonstration atmosphere around his support instead of simply armchair support which makes more sense for the establishment candidate. Nothing really surprising to note there.
2. Hillary supporters write more. They wrote an average of 62 words per post to Bernie supporters: 39 words per post.
This is mostly due to “rants” of which there was 1 Bernie rant and 4 Hillary rants. (Rants were defined as over 75 words.)
So then I decided to look at articles about the two candidates and their supporters. I took a sampling of Salon.com, Slate, WashPo, NYTimes, and other articles that were linked on facebook. I recognize that this isn’t the most scientific methodology, but I was trying to mimic the way the virality of the internet works and pick up a good cross section of the articles that likely democratic voters are going to come across. I ended with around 10,000 words in support of each candidate. I then analyzed the word usage for differences. Here are my takeaways:
1. Hillary supporters use “they” while Bernie supporters use “I.”
This might simply be the establishment vs. the contender language, but I feel like this has something to do with the language of defensiveness that surrounds a pragmatist, and the self-absorption that we see in idealists. Pro-Hillary articles used the words “they” and “I” 48 and 45 times respectively, while Pro-Bernie articles used them 26 and 60 times.
2. Hillary supporters use the contraction “n’t” instead of “not” significantly more often.
It took me more time to understand this one, and my theory of why comes from Star Trek. Data doesn’t use contractions because they are more difficult to program in, implying that the more robotic the person the more likely they are to use “not” instead of “n’t.” Of course, I’m defensive and discouraged by my findings as a Bernie supporter to learn that maybe I am of the robotic clan, but I think it makes sense when you think about what Data represents. He represents an ideal. He isn’t a realistic interpretation of a human, but rather an ideal version of one. So it makes sense that the idealists that support Bernie would be more robotic and less likely to talk casually.
I don’t know (or should I say: I do not know) if these are significant conclusions to come to. They seem pretty minimal. They seem like a place to start. But I’ll make some wild claims while I have you here.
Bernie Sanders is the post-modern candidate of the phenomenologist. His supporters speak about their own perspective in rational, sometimes inhuman terms. Hillary Clinton is the candidate of the skeptic not the pragmatist. Lengthy monologues and the use of the words “them” and “they” have long been associated with conspiracy theorists. Rants are human, emotional, and raw. I don’t believe that Clinton’s supporters are conspiracy theorists, but rather that they are simply skeptics — they can’t handle large leaps because they fear failure and untruth. Hume once discussed the onset of his religious skepticism:
tis not long ago that I burn’d an old Manuscript Book, wrote before I was twenty; which contain’d, Page after Page, the gradual progress of Thoughts on that head. It begun with an anxious search after Arguments, to confirm the common Opinion: Doubts stole in, dissipated, return’d, were again dissipated, return’d again; and it was a perpetual Struggle of a restless Imagination against inclination, perhaps against Reason.
Does this not sound like the Hillary supporter we see on your facebook wall? The person struggling to reason with the idea that they don’t want to believe in the thing that feels good. There is always a lengthy explanation that seems to sound like an inner monologue against hope in favor of reason. Angry, frustrated, and rational.
So the pragmatist is objective and the idealist is subjective? It seems like a valid conclusion to make.
I’ll repeat what I said earlier: I’m an idealist because it is the only pragmatic response to existential ennui. I can’t turn to religion because it was never offered to me, so instead I turn to my own imagination. Maybe this is what ties Sanders and Trump together. It isn’t that they speak “truth to power” or “say it like it is” but rather that they feel religious in their tone without spouting thoughts connected to religion. We are finally realizing Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” theory and we are now hungry to believe in our own minds. Hungry to believe in a higher power that is not given to us, but one that is invented by our own imagination.
This world seems exciting and brilliant to me. But I understand if it is frightening. I personally would much rather see Bernie Sanders vs. Ted Cruz (The language of idealism and personal perspective, that never claims to be more than personal opinion) than Hillary Clinton vs. Rand Paul (The language of objective skepticism).