A wise editor once told me that each word has a job to do, so it is important to select the right word for the job. Some words and phrases can compel and persuade, while other words can repel and anger your audience. Lately, I cannot help but notice the same phrases being deployed again and again in political arguments, often by people on different sides of an issue.
These are the phrases I would like to see retired:
- performance art
- tone policing
- cancel culture
Each of these phrases is used to shut down a point of view and/or its counterpoint without having to be bothered without actually debating anything in a substantive manner. Each says, in effect, you’re not allowed to say that, have an opinion, or be heard. Each of these asserts that it’s my way or the highway, including cancel culture.
If you don’t like that a thorough examination of history or institutional racism is being undertaken that could lead to a change, such as the Washington Redskins dropping its offensive epithetic name, you cry out “cancel culture!” If you don’t like that someone has criticized your point of view, again, you whine, “cancel culture!,” without considering where the underlying criticism is coming from and, gasp, the possibility it may have some validity you are unaware of or have not considered, for whatever reason.
I was accused of this recently after staking out the position that my alma mater, Washington and Lee, change its name. (See prior blog post, “Why My Alma Mater’s Brand, Washington and Lee is Becoming Untenable”). On Facebook, I was tagged teamed by a pair that insisted I could not possibly be serious while advocating that the school cannot improve its diversity and inclusion with a name that appears to venerate a Confederate general. Why could I not be serious? Apparently because I am white and the school is predominately white. Ergo, I was accused of being disingenuous. I am still scratching my head that my earnest and deliberative position was maligned as “performance art.” I also could not figure out if the tag team (also white) thinks the school should retain the name or drop it. The first time I heard the term “performance art” in a political context was when an attorney for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones contended his client doesn’t believe the outrageous things he says; instead, the lawyer offered, Mr. Jones is providing performance art. I am still scratching my head over that. Call me old school, but when I think of performance art, I think of actual performance art, such as the work of Laurie Anderson. [For example, she has a work called “Language is a Virus (From Outer Space)”] Performance art is distinct from non-artists expressing an opinion in a blog or social media comments, so please stop using this term to pooh-pooh any opinion that raises your hackles.
This one pops up when someone has the nerve to suggest that an argument being delivered in an abrasive, aggressive, or militant manner might be ineffective. Someone sympathetic with the speaker’s underlying concerns might provide feedback to the effect of, hey, I hear you, but you might turn off other people from listening to you. No, no, no – if you give such feedback, be prepared to be accused of tone policing. To flip this around, was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tone policing when she rightly called out a male colleague for misogynistic verbal abuse? Imagine if the guy tried to politely debate her on the underlying policy issue instead of calling her a [f*%#@! b*&%!]. Yikes, dude, you definitely needed some tone policing.
Here’s another peeve, which I readily admit is tone policing:
List of Demands
My apologies in advance to anyone who thinks petitioning with a list of demands is effective. The term puts the recipient into a defensive posture, in which they are less likely to respond to your stated concerns. The phrase “list of demands” really sounds like what kidnappers say when listing what they want in ransom money or response. I hear “list of demands” and envision a hapless victim holding up a newspaper in a proof of life photo. When calling for societal changes to be reflected in institutions, this is not an opening to a robust, productive dialogue. (Perhaps you’ve caught on that I do not embrace the “burn-it-all-down” approach.) In the alternative, might I suggest “shared objectives” or something similar in lieu of “list of demands.”
Why are so many of us in a rush to shut down a viewpoint we find objectionable? Well, there are a lot of objectionable viewpoints out there. Say you encounter an adamant anti-vaxxer or an acquaintance who says something that sounds like a racist dog whistle. You could ignore them. You could shut them down. You could inquire, why would you say that? You could simply state, I disagree. You could even elaborate on why you disagree. To do so effectively, keep a calm, firm tone. Use logic. Cite facts. See if they can extend what they believe to be their logic. Turn it around on them with an extension of their logic that is unappealing. Hold up a mirror by saying, when you say X, I hear [something illogical, undeniably wrong]. Offer alternatives, such as, if you want people to understand and recognize Civil War history, would it be better for the statues to be moved from public squares to museums? Another example would be asking when someone says “defund the police” what they actually mean by that specifically. Are they suggesting that, for examples, some funding be reallocated to mental health services, better training for police, accountability for bad policing? Try to engage in a discussion that could potentially arrive at agreed upon solutions.
If someone accuses you of cancel culture, you could note that you are seeking to bring a reality into starker relief for all the truth to be widely seen. Too often, American culture wars come down to all or nothing debates rather than constructive conversations on how we all define ourselves and could agree on what are our shared values. We do not have to agree on every single issue, but we must agree to be tolerant and accepting, including being open to accepting change.