In “The Giver,” Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel about a post-apocalyptic future, a regimented social order has been created to protect citizens from suffering and strife. The “elders” in this utopian community assign everyone roles that fit their gifts. If that was the extent of it, this could be your local Presbyterian Church. But that’s not all there is, as 12-year-old Jonas learns at the dinner table one night when he asks if his father loves him.
“Jonas. You of all people,” the dad replies. “Precision of language, please!” Jonas realizes this is no Utopia he’s living in. He asks, what do you mean? “Your father means that you used a very generalized word, so meaningless that it’s become almost obsolete,” replies his mother.
It’s a foreboding scene. But just as real 21st century life has made political parody difficult, the same is true for dystopian fiction. We’ve managed to take Lois Lowry’s nightmarish specter to new depths. At this time of year, we ostensibly celebrate the birth of the child who taught us to love our enemies. Yet even while shopping for loved ones and listening to Christmas carols, we’re casually spewing insults and animosity via social media at those whose public policy views differ from our own. We don’t bother with precision of language. We’re perfectly willing to use imprecise, even dishonest, language to further our agenda. The professional media does it, too.
Roy Moore, for example, is not a pedophile. Whatever the erstwhile Senate candidate from Alabama was doing at Gadsden Mall back in the 1970s when he pursued teenage girls, he does not have a psychiatric disorder consisting of a primary or exclusively sexual attraction to prepubescent children -- that’s what pedophilia is.
Yet that’s the preferred term from Moore’s critics in the media and the Democratic Party. What he did was creepy enough, so why exaggerate? While we’re on the subject, Moore is no better than his critics. He knows full well that the Washington Post’s exposé into his Gadsden High School transgressions wasn’t “fake news.” So why say it? Bearing false witness is a sin. It says so in the book that Roy Moore says guides his life.
Our battle lines have been forming in this country for some time. In the era of Donald Trump, they have metastasized into trench warfare. It’s not easy to see how we get out of these bunkers, but precision of language is one place to start. It might even lead to charity of heart. How can we understand those with whom we disagree if we won’t characterize them correctly? No matter how many times progressives repeat the mantra that Trump “admitted to sexual assault,” for example, that doesn’t make it true.
“I just start kissing them,” he boasted to Billy Bush in that infamous 2011 “Access Hollywood” recording. “I don’t even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. … Grab 'em by the…,” Trump infamously added. “You can do anything.”
Was Trump exaggerating for effect? Speaking hypothetically? Was he crowing about how society has one set of rules for the rich and famous and another for you and me? Or was he inadvertently foreshadowing the reckoning that was about to come down on Harvey Weinstein and many other famous men? That’s a positive development, and if Democrats -- and female recipients of Trump’s unwanted attention -- want to revisit this issue and try to hold the president to account, more power to them. But there’s no reason to embroider what Trump said. His own words are bad enough. And embellishing what he said helps Trump. It gives him deniability and enables his defenders to shrug off the whole episode.
This dynamic nearly allowed Moore to escape accountability and win his Alabama campaign. When one of his accusers added her own writing to Moore’s signature in her yearbook – and then fibbed about it – his most ardent defenders convinced themselves Moore was being set up.
I’ve argued this before, but it’s still mystifying why Trump’s critics feel the need to augment his remarks. He’s consistently crude and inaccurate. He bullies other people, can’t stick to the facts, and contradicts himself. He says things no other president has ever said in public – and most wouldn’t say in private. And when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called on Trump to resign based on those 2016 allegations, he reacted predictably.
“Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump,” he tweeted. “Very disloyal to Bill & Crooked-USED!”
This is a familiar refrain from Trump. In New York, he really detested being dunned for political contributions. He apparently considered such requests shakedowns, and while he donated money, he resented it. He’s boorish about it, too, and if Trump really considered them bribes, he’s admitting complicity in a shady transaction.
But Trump’s critics were not content to make those points. This was a “sexist smear,” said Gillibrand. “Shameless slur,” the New York Times added, choosing its own alliteration. “Sexually suggestive,” agreed the Washington Post. USA Today’s editorial board rode this wave the hardest. “A president who’d all but call a senator a whore is unfit to clean toilets in Obama’s presidential library or shine George W. Bush’s shoes,” it proclaimed.
Groupthink is never attractive. But the real question is whether it’s a stretch to say that Trump engaged in obvious sexual innuendo. He’s got a history of talking like that, true, but on its face the insults aimed at Gillibrand were references to political, not sexual, favors. Moreover, he’s used that precise language before -- about men who hit him up for contributions, Republicans and Democrats. He employed the “lightweight” slight against New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and conservative activist Brent Bozell. He called Rick Perry a “hypocrite” for requesting money and said all three had come to his office “begging” for contributions. (He said Bozell had begged “like a dog.”)
Was he accusing these men of offering sexual inducement? Was he calling them “whores”?
It’s an interesting word in this context. Years ago, before I broke into the news business, that was the name for someone who left our profession for a public relations job. It was used as a verb, in gerund form, and almost always applied to men. “He’s whoring for U.S. Steel,” for example. The term was harsh, even for the rough-hewn newsrooms of the mid-20th century, and was eventually dropped for the milder word “flacking.”
The flack’s job, whether working for a corporation or labor union, for a Republican or a Democrat, was to frame events as favorably to their side as possible. It was the media’s job to sort out truth from fiction, provide perspective for our readers and viewers, and to call one side out when they came up with dubious lines like “sexist smear.” Not any longer. Today, the press chooses sides, and gleefully regurgitates the most irresponsible talking points. Sometimes, we formulate partisan talking points ourselves. Which raises a question about who’s really doing the whoring now.