We’ve become accustomed to the weaponization of words. Words are used to divide, dehumanize and incite violence. Conservative leaders spread hateful rhetoric to whip up support for attacks on women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community and more. Progressives fight back by trying to shout down the purveyors of bigotry.
Meanwhile, Americans are losing faith in their capacity to tap into the opposite power of words — bringing people closer together. Polls show a tendency to avoid political discussions across party lines. Why have so many of us forsaken the remedial power of language?
In his new book “The Persuaders,” Anand Giridharadas describes how Russia’s Internet Research Agency bombarded Americans with social media posts meant to harden perceptions of our political opponents as unchangeable. He writes: “Again and again, in one way or another, the IRA posts were sending the same message: These people are not to be trusted. They will never change. They are who they are. And who they are is a risk to your being.”
The deterioration of our discourse is rooted in this conviction that opponents can’t be changed, except perhaps by force. The trend is especially concerning among Gen Zers, who will shape the future of this country.
About 76 percent of liberal college students believe shouting down a speaker is acceptable, according to the 2023 College Free Speech Rankings. Only 44 percent of conservatives believe the same.
On college campuses, conservatives are hosting speakers who denigrate transgender people and other groups. Opponents of such bigotry are disrupting them with their own insults, as in recent incidents at Stanford Law School, the University of Pittsburgh, UC Davis and SUNY Albany.
It’s important for Gen Z liberals to understand that many on the right really do feel persecuted. However absurd it may seem to liberals, countless conservatives think they’re under attack. Young liberals can reinforce the belief by ridiculing it or they can diffuse it with careful words rooted in compassion. Gen Z Republicans are much more socially liberal than their parents. If anybody on the right is open to persuasion, it’s them. If they’re attacked as bigots, they’re more likely to double down on harmful beliefs, including the idea that they’re the real victims of oppression.
Gen Zers are more open to diverse perspectives than older generations. If any generation can come together, it’s them. But young liberals need to learn to communicate productively, placing more value on dialogue and less on derogatory judgments.
Consider the case of Donald Trump adviser Stephen Miller. As a student at Santa Monica High School, he often provoked his liberal classmates with incendiary monologues. He later wrote of classmates and teachers: “Their resistance only strengthened my resolve.”
Might a different approach have been more effective?
Of course, dialogue isn’t always possible. This was obvious in the CNN town hall with Donald Trump, who overwhelmed his interviewer Kaitlan Collins with a deluge of lies.
What Jean-Paul Sartre observed of antisemites applies more broadly to liars and demagogues: “They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.”
When bad-faith speakers are invited to campuses, the best way for students to engage, if at all, is to call attention to their manipulative tactics, as Aaron Huertas, a political strategist, advises in his essay “A Field Guide to Bad Faith Arguments.”
Trying to get the speakers disinvited or drowning out their voices doesn’t achieve much. Those tactics play into right-wing propagandists’ hands, providing them with viral videos to show free speech under attack by fascistic liberals, even as Republican leaders ban books.
If we give up on words, the demagogues win. We can’t give them that advantage.
Jean Guerrero is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.