Murphy’s Law: The activist that cried wolf

In recent years, political debate in our country has devolved further and further into extremism. As views slide more left and right, the language used for our political discourse has done the same. When extreme diction is used as often as it is today, it diminishes the worth of those words, rendering them weak when used properly.

A recent article on Bloomberg View offers an interesting perspective on the nature of political debate in our country; one with which I agree and that I find worth sharing. We all remember the story of the boy who cried wolf. By needlessly crying wolf for attention, people did not listen to him when the wolf really did attack.

As progressive discussions about societal issues echo around academia, professors and students alike describe our country with increasingly powerful terms in a well-intentioned effort to increase people’s drive to remedy these problems. Unfortunately, stronger terms like ‘white supremacist,’ ‘misogynist’ and describing capitalists as ‘having blood on their hands’ muddles the message and turns off the people that need convincing to solve injustice.

The application of stronger words to social and institutional problems is intended to evoke moral outrage and push people into action. But if we overuse these terms, we’ll run out of outrage, or even care less about minor offenses. If someone who had recently eaten said to you “I’m starving right now,” you would think nothing of it, because they are not starving. If someone called a corporate CEO evil for laying off workers, evil would not be a very powerful word. We all hate Nazis, but someone who finds the NFL national anthem protests disrespectful to the flag is not advocating a race war.

The men in white polos in Charlottesville with tiki torches? Those guys are white supremacists. A Tufts organization having mostly white members? Not white supremacist.

Activists miss the danger in using these words. Firstly, as we use words like misogynist, oppressive and racist to describe increasingly less serious offenses, we erode the weight these words carry. Secondly, people are going to make moral distinctions based on reality. There are sins of omission and sins of commission. A hiring policy that unintentionally hurts a certain group of people is not the same as full on segregation. Ratcheting up our chosen language does not increase people’s desire to rectify or diffuse problems, it makes them less sensitive to concerted discrimination.

If we call Hillel “white supremacist,” then what do we call Jim Crow laws? If Mitt Romney was a misogynist, what is Donald Trump? Our Republican president might pander to racists, but that does not make anyone with an R next to their name a KKK member. If you characterize profit seeking as violent, what will you say when someone enacts real violence against a disadvantaged group? If we strive for greater equality in our country, we need to craft our message more carefully according to different grades of severity and better understand our audience. How will we warn Americans of the wolf when it does show up, if wolf no longer means anything to them?