As a professional writer who has a journalism degree and as someone who taught writing at the collegiate level, I believe words matter. Unfortunately, I feel too many journalists, politicians, and elected officials failed us during the administration of Donald J. Trump.
Indeed, I believe their choice of words to describe his outrageous behavior have both encouraged and enabled him.
For example, in the era of Trump, empathy, politeness and humility have been labeled as “political correctness.” Right-wing propagandists are dismissed as “conservatives.” Domestic terrorists are labeled as “extremists.” Violent militias and hate groups are labeled as “radicals.” Seditionists are known as “patriots.” And insurrectionist politicians are part of “the freedom caucus.”
Voter suppression is “enforcing voter ID laws.” Voter disenfranchisement is “updating voter registration.” Civil rights marches and protests are “riots” while threatening gatherings of armed militias are “demonstrations.”
When Trump bombarded us with lies and disinformation, far too many reporters referred to the lies as “factually incorrect” or “untrue.” When he made racist statements and encouraged violence, reporters called them “an attack on political norms.” Even when he called journalists enemies of the people, few reporters were willing to acknowledge his behavior as that of an autocrat.
When Trump ordered children to be ripped from their parents’ arms, too many reported that he had increased “border security,” instead of calling his order what it really was: child torture. When he refused asylum to political and economic refugees, he was “tough on immigration.” But, by sending them back to almost certain death, he was acting as an accomplice to mass murder. And both the Russia investigation and Trump’s first impeachment were labeled by some as “witch hunts.”
Yet, never has the issue become more obvious than in aftermath of Trump’s attempted coup.
Though the assault on Congress was clearly an effort to kidnap and murder those elected representatives who refused to do Trump’s bidding by overturning the election, the language was quickly softened. Instead of calling it a coup, an insurrection, or even domestic terrorism, many described it merely as an “attack,” a “riot,” or a mere “demonstration.” Some of the buffoons on Fox News even said, “America had it coming.”
Let’s be clear. We can never heal this nation until we have a shared truth. That requires precision of language – language that accurately describes what we have collectively seen and experienced. We must do better.