When Vox’s Zack Beauchamp defended Sarah Jeong’s nasty “white people” tweets as something less than genocidal, he wasn’t wrong — once you correct for inflation.
All that white-people bashing was just done “satirically and hyperbolically,” Beauchamp explained; it’s a kind of left-wing “shorthand,” it shouldn’t be taken “literally.” And indeed, viewing Jeong’s Twitter rants in the most forgiving light, one can see her using the noun “white people” in the way liberals often do these days — as a stand-in for a much broader, vaguer socioeconomic force. Something roughly equivalent to “the 21st-century American power structure,” or maybe just “the drearily bourgeois.”
There are contexts in which this sort of thing works. Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like was pretty funny, for instance. But as a matter of political vocabulary, reducing an entire race to a sarcastic meme is just one more manifestation of the collapse of American debate into poisonous incoherence — a discourse in which people use powerful language with growing carelessness, with words untethered to fussy things like clear definitions. Phrases are employed to the degree they feel right to the speaker, and it’s your job to appreciate that “context.” The clichéd advice for understanding President Trump’s sloganeering — take it “figuratively, not literally” — is how we’re expected to process more and more opinions.
Now we live in a world in which everyone is constantly calling everyone else a liar, even if they don’t — technically speaking — really mean it.
Take “fake news.” This used to be a very particular term referring to a very particular manifestation of lies masquerading as news, mostly stemming from botched efforts to emulate The Onion, whose fake news is identifiable as purposeful satire. Yet the term was apparently too delicious to waste on such a narrow purpose, and today “fake news” is a bipartisan insult leveled against basically any collection of words or ideas deemed unpleasant in any way. An unhinged conspiracy website is “fake news,” but so is the mild partisan spin of a campaign ad. An unintentional error by a reporter is just as much “fake news” as a story containing facts you’d prefer not to encounter.
Given this inconsistent colloquial usage, the informed observer now knows that “fake news” means essentially nothing, yet literally it still means “lies.” The worst kind of lie, in fact: fakery, which implies deliberately constructed dishonesty. So now we live in a world in which everyone is constantly calling everyone else a liar, even if they don’t — technically speaking — really mean it.
“Democracy” has been similarly debased, as I’ve discussed before. While the term is obviously imprecise at the best of times, there once existed general consensus that “democracy” had mostly to do with free elections and the basic constitutional provisions necessary for self-government. Today, however, we read endlessly of “threats to democracy” both at home and abroad that boil down to “policy outcomes I don’t like.” The cry to “save democracy from literal fascists,” which we’d at one time reserve for, say, Germany’s invading Belgium — is now just as likely to be mobilized in some low-stakes House race.
So useless has this definition of “democracy” become (largely, it should be said, through efforts on the left) that it would not surprise at all if some faction on the right soon declared itself proud “authoritarians.” It won’t mean they’re actually in favor of dictatorship as a system of government, you must understand, just contrarian shorthand to reflect their resistance to the shorthand of progressives. If you get confused, that’s on you.
The list goes on. “Deep State” has shifted from an academic descriptor of the most shadowy, secretive inner clique of the national-security complex (in Turkey, mostly) to basically “any uppity government worker I don’t care for.” “Men” means all men, except when it doesn’t.
Even the trendy terms that entered our collective consciousness five minutes ago are immediately broadened into meaningless generalities: incel, alt-right, cultural Marxist. No one uses any of these words for the narrow purpose for which they were intended; they’re just generic slurs for anything the speaker finds distasteful. Where we’d once criticize a thought for being incorrectly or ignorantly phrased, we’re now expected to shrug off any dumb or obtuse language so long as the motivation behind it seems somewhat defensible.
The net consequence of such linguistic carelessness is to broaden the size and evil of the enemy class — “the enemy of the people,” as a famously careless man once put it — and in doing so, make rhetorical warfare even more viciously scattershot. Enemies are suddenly everywhere, or it at least sounds as if they are. Paranoia and misunderstandings, and with them viral outrages and counter-outrages, become an inevitable feature of a culture of this sort, all because we insist on expressing our overheated opinions with sloppily worded nonsense instead of just stating clearly what we actually mean.
We are a nation of less and less impulse control, a people who want the sugar rush of chomping the marshmallow right this second. There’s an endorphin kick in speaking in terms more extreme and ridiculous than adults should use, and in an age of echo chambers, little immediate social consequence for doing so. But as Sarah Jeong has learned, communicating in a language that lacks precision ultimately means having to justify your words to people exercising their own agency in deciding what they want to hear.