In an auditorium at Middlebury College packed with students on March 2, chants of “Who is the enemy? White supremacy” and “Racist, sexist, anti-gay: Charles Murray, go away!” drowned out Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, before he even began to speak.
Students have every right to protest perceived injustices. But by sweepingly labeling Murray for his controversial remarks in the past regarding race, they created yet another case of catchphrases trumping productive discourse.
As Middlebury Professor Allison Stranger, who identifies as a Democrat, wrote in a Facebook post responding to the event, inviting Murray to speak was meant “to demonstrate publicly a commitment to a free and fair exchange of views in my classroom.” However, students’ decision to bury Murray’s speech with their shouting and labeling rendered this impossible.
In the wake of the presidential election, a New York Times article entitled “The End of Identity Liberalism” bemoaned the rise of identity politics and the modification of policies and rhetoric to specific groups that stunts political discourse. In our current state, we run the risk of falling into a similar trap: By labeling one another as “fascist” or “snowflake,” we reinforce polarization and stagnate debate. And in the case of Middlebury, recycling chants about Murray ignored the difficult but necessary discussion surrounding his work and past, especially considering his support for same-sex marriage and his rebuke of President Donald Trump.
Ultimately, it’s far easier and less productive to dismiss someone with the help of a catchy regurgitated phrase than to engage with them, their work, ideas, morals and worldview.
We conflate people with policy positions and come to sweeping generalizations. We attack people rather than beliefs or positions. Based on our new political vocabulary, cross-aisle dialogues no longer pit Democrats against Republicans or liberals against conservatives. Instead, it has shifted to “libertards” against “white supremacists,” “communists” against “Trump supporters” or even “feminazis” against actual neo-Nazis.
In many cases, the reality is not nearly as simple as these insults would denote. The result is a trench-like warfare where both sides hurl insults at one another from the safety of their own echo chambers, with no one willing to venture out of the “no man’s land” of bipartisanship and open dialogue.
As the Red Scare in the 1950s proved, incriminating neighbors as communists or pinning them with other deeply stigmatized labels produces paranoia, hysteria, false alarms and real consequences.
Resorting to broad categorizations also tends to be counterproductive to the aims of the label-slinger. For example, branding someone as a fascist as a means to delegitimize their opinions can have the effect of shutting down productive discussion and negating an opportunity for education. On the other side of the aisle, brandishing the term “snowflake” to demarcate people as overly emotional is a cop-out that avoids engaging with the other side’s argument and acknowledging concerns over respecting marginalized groups.
College campuses and newsfeeds are laboratories where these forces collide. One only needs to look at college protests that escalate to violence or even the Daily Trojan’s comment section to see proof of where one-liners replace substance and even justify aggression. It’s not uncommon for people to label socially conscious peers as “feminazis” or shrug at the use of such terms. But as America’s largest generation, millennials need to transcend this rhetoric in order to build a future based on empathy and reason. In the midst of a divisive political environment, coupled with data from CNN that reveals we are the “most polarized political group that the United States has seen in some time,” the stakes are too high.
Ultimately, words matter. It’s not just about the strength and morality of our arguments and how we package them — it’s about how we address each other across the political spectrum.
But that’s just the beginning. Once we move past categorizations and assumptions, we can and must engage in discussions of substance — in challenging each other’s positions and beliefs to not establish moral or intellectual superiority, but rather to gain new perspectives and insight that will lead to less polarization and better policy.
This spring, citizens should consider cleaning out not just their closets but also their political vocabulary. There’s no need to recycle inflammatory rhetoric, and no need to donate labels to the next person. Spring is a time of renewal and rebirth — we ought to breathe life back into the national political dialogue.