Name-Calling as Substitute for Discourse
Not all speech is created equal. Insults may or may not hurt their targets, but they hurt the debate and interfere with the understanding of issues. Insults are fabrications used to impugn character when other means of communication don’t work or as a common strategy to discredit others.
Name-calling substitutes for discussions of issues. People use insults out of anger and when they don’t know how to explain their positions. Thus, others become stupid or clueless when we disagree and we aren’t sure how to address them. Insults can also protect us from cognitive dissonance and rally the forces of our ideological allies to our side.
Political name-calling is an extension of racial name-calling. Once you can stereotype a member of another cultural group based on religion, country of origin or what we define as their race, it is a short step to stereotyping people of different political parties or beliefs. The mindset that allows us to call people ni**ers, wetbacks, spics, etc is the same mind-set that allows us to call people fat, ugly, stupid and retarded when we disagree with them politically.
Is calling someone a "racist" name-calling, or just an accurate assessment?
Name-calling can have some semblance of reality, like calling Republicans “obstructionist” during the budget debates, which is a fairly accurate assessment from a Democrats point of view. Of course, from a Republican point of view, their party is simply being disciplined in their efforts to cut the budget.
Then there is the name-calling that is irrelevant and the name-calling that is aggressive and completely fantastical. Calling Rush Limbaugh fat may be accurate, but it’s irrelevant, and if his weight is a problem for you, you have bigger psychological issues than Mr. Limbaugh’s heft. And calling Michelle Obama fat is just inaccurate. However, inaccurately using labels such as traitorous, cowardly, fascist, Nazi (never accurate) or socialist (which might be accurate if the accuser knew what socialism was) are used to invoke ire in the targets and gather support from allies regardless of their distance from fact.
The most effective insults are the ones based in a group's ideology or a truth. Calling someone pustulent is just mean, but calling them a woman hater might be accurate if you can provide facts such as a history of wife-beating and misogynistic statements. If you provide facts, and the facts are relevant to the issue at hand, it is more an assessment than an insult.
The power of insults change over time
In the 19050s, being called a socialist by the House Un-american Activities Committee (HUAC) could get you fired, blacklisted, and even arrested. Now, the term socialist is used mainly to discredit a politician, usually a Democrat. However, Republicans use the term on each other as well when they support things like immunizations for children, fixing pot holes or for schools. Again, few of people who use the term as an insult actually know what socialism is. They use it to broadly paint anyone that supports any spending other than on police and the military as socialist.
Being called boy as an African American man still holds power, but the word is not as frequently used as it was in the past. There are other code words for race that are used today, terms that are more subtle. And they usually aren’t used in mixed company; they are used when people are with their supporters. Reagan used terms like welfare queens, criminals, and lazy workers as code for Blacks and the last one for union members as well as Blacks. They weren’t accurate labels, but they tapped into feeling that White voters had about minorities.
Republicans have spent years redefining the term liberal so that now their base and many other Americans understand that the word is an insult, at least when Republicans use it. Democrats don’t use the term conservative as an insult, but they might say right-wing or the more clearly derogatory term, wing nut.
During the 2010 budget debates, Democratic frustration lead to some interesting choice words. “Extortionists and hostage-takers”, “Terrorists”, “Anarchists”, “Squealing political pigs” and “Murderers” were some of the insults Democrats used. Some of these insults were exaggerations and hyperbole, i.e. extortionist, or outright insults such as squealing political pigs.
Of course Republicans call liberals all sorts of names to discredit them, names that are also lack a basis in reality. Un-american, traitorous, stupid, lazy, hippies and tree-huggers (as if there is something wrong with hugging trees) are insults used regularly to define liberals by Republicans and other conservatives.
Republicans also call feminists whores, ugly or fat, and they inaccurately (or idiotically) call Obama a socialist, a Nazi, elitist and many more distasteful names. And what’s wrong with being elite? We like elite athletes, elite schools, and elite bodyguards (who wants non-elite bodyguards?). So, why don’t some people want an elite President?
It’s the connotations that conservatives have built around the word elite that they use to discredit Obama and other liberals. Elite isn’t the Koch Brothers, Adelson or Romney, wealthy Republicans, it’s those lawyers, Ivy League Educated, know it all, lazy, good for nothing, un-American… You get the idea.
Is mentioning the Republican “war on women” an insult?
A special target for insult is female politicians, “For some reason, male Republicans are obsessed with nicknaming their female political opponents with the nickname "Barbie."” One such target is Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis who had the gall to filibuster a Republican bill that would reduce reproductive choice in Texas.
Erick Erickson of the conservative RedState Reader called Wendy Davis, “"Abortion Barbie," a nickname that manages to be both misogynistic and painfully stupid. Then came Greg Abbott, a Republican who may run against Davis for governor, who thanked a Twitter follower who referred to Davis as "Retard Barbie."” (ibid) Perhaps they couldn’t fight her positions on choice and thus resorted to insults. Perhaps Republican men and women will rally to vote for Abbott if they feel threatened by Davis, the “Barbie feminazi.”
Interesting twitter feed, “men call be things”.
Some Democrats and liberals join in on the name game. Ann Coulter is an ugly bitch, Limbaugh is evil and pathological, Bush is a Nazi, Cheney an idiot fascist and so forth. Imitating Republicans and other conservatives with tit-for-tat name-calling is not the best way to get a message across to people. However, it is a good way to play up to your ideological base.
Former White House Chief of Staff under Obama went after the President’s base and called liberal activist “retarded” because they dared to challenge President Obama on his policies. While it’s silly to resort to name-calling, attacking your base with insults can be political suicide.
There are times when people confuse criticism with insults. When PresidentObama said that Republicans, ““deny the overwhelming judgment of science””, it was not an insult as Brietbart.com claims, it was a poorly worded observation. Even if Obama had said, “most scientists believe in global warming, but some people want to ignore that fact”, Breitbart would have still confused Obama’s statements with insults. It is not an insult, it’s an observation. It the kind of “I know you are but what am I discourse that people use when they feel inaccurate claims have been made against them or their ideology is being challenged.
Some radio personalities make a living off of the insult. Examine the career of Ann Coulter. Her books insult “liberals” in the title, because she knows that she will sell books to a certain segment of the population if the books utilize the preconceived and poorly thought out talking points the conservative audience has about liberals, Democrats or progressives. In fact, insulting (her perception of) liberals, Democrats and non-Republicans is most of her career. Just look at the titles of a majority of her books:
- Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right.
- Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism.
- Godless: The Church of Liberalism.
- If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans.
- Guilty: Liberal "Victims" and Their Assault on America.
- Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America.
- Mugged: Racial Demagoguery from the Seventies to Obama.
- Never Trust a Liberal Over 3 — Especially a Republican.
Some great Coulter insults for your reading pleasure can be found here.
Is mocking someone the same as insulting them?
If insulting liberals sells books, so can insulting Republicans and conservatives. Al Franken sold books that had titles insulting Limbaugh and the right like Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. I guess Franken thought the titles “Rush Limbaugh is a Factually Challenged Person with Weight Issues” and “Evidence that Fox News Prevaricates” wouldn’t sell as many books. He’s probably correct. I laughed at Al Franken’s book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, but in retrospect, he was doing the same kind of character assassination as Limbaugh does on his show.
Insults online are used to develop camaraderie with others in specific affinity groups. Thus, Republicans will insult Democrats with the tried and true meme tested insults of liberal (remember, any non-right-winger is a liberal, including moderate Republicans) hypocrite or anti-american and Democrats will pull out the insults that have been tested on Republicans; they are Nazi, fascist, thugs! And when we want to attack an opponent personally, we nail them on an easily observable trait. Republican Governor Christie is a fat pig (he has a weight issue), Sandra Fluke is a slut (stupid liberal un-American terrorist) because she’s a liberal that believes in women’s rights and birth control, Obama’s a communist (anyone that supports ANY health care law is a communist). Besides, he’s black. Thus, he is a witch doctor.
None of these insults address the issues we have with these people, but they can be fun, and get chuckles from our political cohort. And to the delight of the insulter, these insults provoke a response from the opposition.
Instead of calling gun rights advocates "cowards", I can say, “I understand that gun owners are afraid.”
This name-calling has been called nounism. We label people as good or bad objects. Insults are, “Loaded nouns and the adjectives that modify them” and “are part of everyone's vocabulary.” Recently, “conservatives have leaned heavily upon them…Using nouns, especially loaded ones…Call anyone opposes you a pejorative noun; call yourself and anyone who supports you a complimentary noun. Do it with enough certainty and conviction and it will stick.” Then the insults will become talking points for your ideological allies.
Name-calling is like saying, “I don’t like what you have to say because I can’t respond to you with a logically argument and my only recourse is to insult you.”
A recent study looked at the effect nasty insults and negative comments have on readers reactions to articles, “…we had participants read comments on the post, supposedly from other readers, and respond to questions regarding the content of the article itself…Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.” What this study suggests is that online flaming and name-calling can change how we perceive content, “… flame wars polarize thinking…” (ibid)
Insults are not needed if you have facts, evidence and can make an argument. It’s one thing to call Obama or Reagan murderers. It is more factual and useful to say, “Obama uses drones with impunity", and "Reagan aided death squads in Central America during his time in office.” As far as ad hominem attacks on other writers and posters, ask yourself this: do you want to discuss an issue, to teach and learn, or do you want discord? Do you want to act like Republicans and Democrats, like Coulter and Franken, or do you want to act like a fellow human beings?