Words Fail

Ever since Tuesday, I’ve thought writing something, but each time I stared down the blank page I came up empty. So much had been said — so many pieces expressing despair, cataloging failures or advocating action — that there didn’t seem to be anything left to say. I couldn’t formulate what I wanted to express anyway. I considered giving up.

But language is tricky like that. Sometimes, we’re grasping in the dark for some bit of truth to hold onto. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, words fail. And that got me thinking.

A particular kind of linguistic failure is labels. That kind of cognitive shorthand. comes from the kind of pattern-matching human brains do best. We sort things. We catalogue them. That’s what allowed our ancestors to judge whether something was edible, poinsonous, dangerous, helpful, what have you.

We look at people and make judgments about them, too. Here, labels aren’t always useful — human beings are infinitely complex and labels only tell part of the story. In fact, they are sometimes labels are a tool employed specifically to erase a person’s humanity and turn them into an something easier to handle, like a marksmanship target — flat, flimsy and defined.

Those of us who voted against Trump might have an easy time seeing this in his supporters and a harder time seeing it in ourselves. We would like to deal with his supporters in one monolith — and it only seems fair, since Trump himself has freely made use of labels and overgeneralizations. But we shouldn’t treat the supporters of Trump as a monolith either. Not because it’s not fair, or because we need to “come together,” but because it doesn’t actually help us to combat the frightening discrimination we’ve seen in the last week or the dangerous policies proposed during the campaign.

Dismissing all Trump supporters as racist mysoginist ignoramuses makes it harder to recruit support from anyone who did support him, or at least considere it. And that may result in a less effective challenge — one that can be dismissed as “liberal spin” or “a conspiracy against Trump.”

I’m not advocating a PC- style ban on labels, or that they be turned into a some kind of clumsy longhand (I don’t asked to be referred to as a “female of mixed northern European ancestry who is s follower of Islam with many questions and some quite liberal interpretations who nonetheless self identifies as Muslim” even if it is more accurate than “white Muslim convert”). Sometimes labels are useful and appropriate. But we should pay attention to when labels are just intellectual laziness.

Let’s not allow Trump or his supporters an easy excuse to write off the frightening accounts of white people intimidating minorities or men intimidating women, but instead continue to call on him to denounce the hate that’s been spread in his name. Let’s look at this not as a fight against a group of “those” (a label which implies: lesser, unworthy) people, but rather as a fight against violent actions, hateful rhetoric and unconstitutional policies. Let’s take it away from left or right identity, and make it an issue of concrete action.

Maybe this small shift in tone will be the first step to making this a truly productive dialogue. I have to believe that if we’re willing to listen there are others who are too.