If we ask people what they think about political rhetoric, they will likely respond that it is baloney and that we shouldn’t buy it. But I think those same people do buy it very frequently. I want to dissect a few recent and pertinent examples. In dissecting them, I think patterns emerge that can inform us about what drives the dominant political discourse — contempt toward the politically disempowered.
To start right in on a relevant case: Fox News Business columnist Steve Tobak recently published a piece which brilliantly displays the moronic and childish misunderstanding of terms that conservative rhetoric thrives upon. His piece “The Real Impact of Political Correctness” attempts to explain why political correctness is a form of collectivism and then provides a straw man version of political correctness, claiming that political correctness necessarily entails praising peoples’ failures.
Why the crusade against political correctness? Well, there’s a great little trick that they can pull. By claiming that political correctness is really just a method of trying to make the society too nice, they can preemptively stop criticisms that would devastate their views. That is, when they demonize women and minorities, our criticisms don’t mean anything because we’re just a bunch of whiney, overprotective wimps who can’t allow anyone to be criticized.
I mean, what else could they do anyway? They can’t admit that women or ethnic minorities are politically disempowered. And they certainly couldn’t admit that their views are filled to the brim with implicit misogyny and racism. Because, as we all know, we simply must accept that everyone has a fair chance in America. If we started to think something so extremely radical, that people do not have equal access to success, well, then we might want to take the most dangerous step of all — moving from talk to action.
The trick with that piece of rhetoric is that it is stopping the issue as early as possible. That is a successful rhetorical move that the billion-dollar per year public relations industry has beautifully refined. The politically powerful want to stop any action that would decrease their power, and their best weapon is the public relations machine, which they can use to nip dissent in the bud. If the most obvious criticisms of their institutions can’t be made because the surrounding speech is muddled and confused, then voila, problem solved.
Another right wing favorite is “personal responsibility.” Man, that sure sounds good. So nice. No one in the world is going to say that personal responsibility is bad. So they’re saying nothing. But, just like in the “political correctness” case, there is a dubious implication.
To put it very briefly, when our favorite conservative pundits so frequently tout personal responsibility, they are really saying “poor people are poor because they aren’t taking responsibility for their lives, and we should not implement social programs to help them, because they are responsible for their circumstances.”
Searching conservative websites for “personal responsibility” can lead to a fun and face-palm filled afternoon. The move that they make is actually rather brilliant. By accepting “personal responsibility” as used in their context, one unwittingly adopts a view of the society in which everyone’s circumstance is their fault. And since you believe in personal responsibility, you believe in what it entails. The trick is that they have a very particular concept of personal responsibility with extra stuff added on, and people just buy the whole package.
“Family values” is a double whammy. It implies that puritanical, Christian morality is the right value set, and if you’re against it, you’re against families. Demonizing everyone else’s values is a clear form of disempowerment. The second part is that it helps to push the right-wing conception of charity, that people’s families are responsible for them, not the government. But, you know, you’re supposed to forget about cases where the entire family needs help or someone has no family.
We could go on case by case, but it’s clear that the right-wing discourse operates on sneaky tricks in order to blame and vilify the already disempowered. They just don’t have real arguments.
BRIAN MOEN finds Steve Tobak’s argumentation to be so sophomoric that it’s embarrassing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.