Politics & Policy

Weapons of Mass ‘Weaponization’

A Trump supporter (left) and anti-Trump protester argue outside an appearance by presidential candidate Donald Trump in Denver, Colo., July 1, 2016. (Chris Schneider/Reuters)
In a culture-war world, it is inescapable that everything becomes a weapon.

The days of normalization — meaning roughly “talking about something media elites don’t like without constantly criticizing it” — are gone. The new buzzword for opinion-makers is “weaponization.” Most prominently, the New York Times (in a front-page news article) has told us “How Conservatives Weaponized the First Amendment,” following similar arguments from the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Salon last year worried about corporations “weaponizing culture,” and conservatives themselves worried about similar cultural “weaponizations” back in 2012.

On Twitter, though, a Vice reporter cut through the noise, reflecting on a recent bout of outrage over a public figure’s old tweets: What’s being weaponized, he argued, is always “the Left’s morality,” whenever and wherever it would protect conservatives or suggest that liberals or leftists are doing something wrong.

What does it mean to weaponize morality, or a value such as free speech? Ethical systems need not simply principles, but spheres of relevant application as well. I believe in not punching people, but I’m not going to criticize someone for punching the wall in frustration — or at least I will not do so out of a belief that the punching has caused the wall pain. In politics, when people claim that their principles have been weaponized, what they tend to mean is that those principles have been universalized: They have been applied more broadly, more consistently, and in different contexts than the people ostensibly holding those principles would have liked.

What the charge of “weaponization” thus amounts to is an admission that there are supposed to be different rules for my side than for your side. To treat both sides the same way is, to the relentless partisan, tantamount to transforming some of those rules into weapons. The rules, the partisan thinks, are meant to come equipped with their spheres of application; self-serving stories about who has “power” (whatever that means) and who doesn’t are common ways of justifying double standards on the modern-day left, and citizenship can serve a similar role on the right.

Of course, this is grammatically very misleading. Verbs with -ize tend to indicate that some essential change has been made. To verbalize something means to turn it from an inchoate thought to a specific set of words. To cauterize a wound is to burn it, where it wasn’t burnt previously. Weaponize, like normalize, thus also reflects a relativism about what’s essentially going on: To change the context in which something is discussed is, for these speakers, to change in a deep way that thing itself.

It’s worth noting that both of these verbs have standard meanings that fit the “verbalize”/“cauterize” pattern: Weaponized uranium is uranium that’s been purified enough to make it suitable for use in a bomb, and normalized relations are relations that’ve been brought back to some sort of equilibrium after a period of turmoil. Both of these involve real, essential changes in a real-world thing captured by the verb’s direct object. By contrast, to “normalize Trump” does not change Trump, only a small piece of the discursive context surrounding him; and to “weaponize free speech” does not change free speech — it generally involves a straightforward application of free-speech principles.

“Weaponization” as a charge predates Trump. The New York Times had already asked in October 2016 whether “cries of ‘free speech’ [can] be a weapon,” and the Chronicle of Higher Education had featured an explanation of “when free speech becomes a political weapon” in 2015. Both of those articles, however, are about speech, protest, and harm on college campuses. My guess, therefore, is that “weaponization” as a charge and as a buzzword has radiated outward from the heart of the “culture war” as the polarized contours of that conflict have been increasingly matched in broader politics. After all, war is where you use weapons.

Many commentators, myself included, have worried about the growing threat of political violence in America. But a nonviolent culture war carries its own threat: Once the most characteristic and most effective means of waging war has been removed, everything else is up for grabs, liable to be distorted as part of the campaign. (Of course, a conflict being violent does not prevent it from enlisting nonviolent “weapons.”) A situation with enemies but no actual weapons seems to be accompanied by a profound suspicion of everything around us, even our own principles. We seem to think, “This is a war, so there must be weapons somewhere. Maybe there!” This feature, paradoxically, makes the conflict almost non-ideological — since any piece of the ideology, any principle, can be discarded almost immediately once it appears as a tool in the hands of our enemies. The joke about this on conservative Twitter is “doing X to own the libs,” where X is an act that intuitively corresponds to liberal, not conservative, morality.

These sorts of petty hypocrisies and self-betrayals are all too common when a conflict comes to be seen as totalizing enough to be zero-sum. At that point the only question, not just for any person but for any object, even any principle, is what side it’s on. But what are the sides? Any statement of what “my” side is about is apt to be weaponized by “you” almost immediately; any principle separating “us” from “them” is apt to be turned around on “us” in no time at all. The culture war thus sets fire to its own purpose as the belligerents jostle for strategic supremacy and tactical authenticity. In such a world, it is inescapable that everything becomes a weapon.

Oliver Traldi is a writer living on the East Coast. In August he will begin a doctoral program in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

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