The 'Lynching' Controversy and the Death of Common Language
In the Bible, the people of Babel unite in fighting God; they decide to build a massive tower to challenge God’s supremacy. God, annoyed by their presumption, promptly causes them to speak a variety of tongues, dividing them and ending the foolhardy project.
The story represents a simple truth: unity relies, at least in large part, on shared language.
In the United States, we’re watching our shared language disintegrate.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump fired off one of his infamously impassioned tweets about the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. Frustrated by Democrats’ lack of clarity on process with regard to that inquiry, Trump wrote: “So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here — a lynching. But we will WIN!”
Trump’s use of the word “lynching” immediately set off a firestorm. Characteristic among denunciations was one from former Vice President Joe Biden, who imperiously intoned: “Our country has a dark, shameful history with lynching, and to even think about making this comparison is abhorrent. It’s despicable.”
There was just one problem: Biden used the exact same language in October 1998 to describe the Clinton impeachment. “History is going to question whether or not this was just a partisan lynching,” Biden said back then. Which prompted Biden — today’s Biden — to condemn himself, stating: “That wasn’t the right word to use and I’m sorry about that. Trump on the other hand chose his words deliberately today in his use of the word lynching and continues to stoke racial divides in this country daily.”
So when Joe Biden used the word “lynching” to describe his perception of a politically motivated impeachment in 1998, that was merely poor word choice. When Trump used it in 2019, he obviously meant to liken himself to black victims of white supremacist violence.
Or, alternatively, everyone is full of it.
Politics is wildly skewing our use of basic language. And that phenomenon is one of the key factors tearing apart the country. Every word becomes a potential dog whistle. Every phrase is parsed by the politically motivated for signs of malign intent. Politically correct language policing becomes the order of the day. Misunderstanding becomes malice; clarity becomes confusion.
The deliberate confusion fostered regarding gender pronouns is yet another example of this phenomenon. It is not a sign of malice to suggest that gender pronouns refer to objective measures of sex. It is a sign of a delusional culture to suggest that third party use of gender pronouns must refer instead to subjective self-identification. Yet we are told that virtue mandates that we pretend that transgender women are women, even if that means that biological men compete with biological women in sport; we are told that virtue requires that parents call their confused 7-year-olds by their chosen pronouns, even though confused children desperately require guidance, love and advice from parents, not mere affirmation of malleable self-identification.
We cannot have conversations with one another if we refuse to define terms. But refusal to define terms is one of the most fruitful methods of impugning others. If we seek division rather than unity, we’ll certainly find it. And as we cordon ourselves off into separate interpretations of language we once held in common, we’re less and less likely to ever again find common ground.
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