Sticks and stones: words as weapons

”Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

As kids, we were encouraged to chant that to take the sting out of insults aimed at us. I was reminded of the chant by president Trump’s taunt to the four congresswomen: Go back to where you came from.

What struck me this time is that Mr Trump excites his supporters and his “enemies” by evoking a war that offers the thrill of survival and victory— but nobody risks actually dying.

The Trump taunt reminded me of a Christmas party in the 1970s when the Vietnam War was winding down but still killing people. A Continuing Ed student had invited my wife and me, without mentioning that the guests were executives of Smith & Wesson, the gun manufacturer.

When I realized, I heard my wife Susan deploring the war, and a young executive countering, “if you don’t like this country, you can leave it.” Meaning: Go back where you came from.

In my gut I felt a flight-or-fight reaction. My nervous system knew that his words was a form of combat. His insult was a put-down–as in putting an animal out of its misery–but the killing was social death.  Otto Rank put it right: every argument is symbolically about who lives and who dies. If you lose an argument, you lose face and self-esteem. You die a little. In a real war.  If you win an argument, you feel more alive. If your put-down is forceful enough and your opponent is intimidated, you have more freedom: more life.  In a real war, you impregnate or enslave the losers. This is one of the reasons that whites have needed blacks, especially when defeated Confederates needed scapegoats after losing the Civil War.

The problem is that words do have an impact on us.  As Robert C. Ellliot demonstrates in The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art, for example, satire originated in the impact of the curse.

As sublimated warfare, electoral contests naturally use terms such as “attack,” “defeat,” and synonyms for “striking a blow.” Ideas may be weaponized. The underlying tactic is to arouse supporters to feel as if they’re embattled but guaranteed to survive: to enjoy the combat.

The trick is to turn flight into fight. Slogans or propaganda can boost morale, as in “Make America Great Again.” The Canetti of Crowds and Power would find chanting a way of turning flight into fight, as in “Send her [the scapegoat] back” or “Lock her up.” Chanting together is like basic training in the military. Recruits learn to overcome inhibitions about destroying another person and feel the magnified fore of the group. Chanting is also a safe way for the group to take some initiative. They’re all on the same page, overcoming their differences. And of course they don’t threaten the leader.

Why is being a supporter enjoyable? Because as in war, you survive. The leader and the Cause promise you will escape from death.

The obverse applies to the scapegoats. They’re dehumanized as apes or imagined predators. Fears that your leader may be a crook are turned against the “enemy,” as in the Hillary Clinton steals wealth and preys on kids. Immigrants are not individual persons but a predatory gang. They rob, they rape, they fake being real US citizens: being one of us. Like spies, they deserve death.

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