The High Voltage Language of Status Issues

Michelle Obama responding to the kidnapping of Nigerian girls in 2014
          Michelle Obama responding to the                                 kidnapping of Nigerian girls in 2014                                       

Nearly all Americans can be provoked into political engagement if they suspect their identity interests are threatened by governmental bodies. 

These days our public rhetoric includes a lot of angst about slights and insensitivities to individual communities under the big tent of American life.  On one hand, many Americans believe other members in the society have become too sensitive to language that only seems to demean or degrade others.  The view from this mostly conservative side of the ideological divide sees “political correctness” as “liberal” overreach that verges into censorship.  They argue that the once-worthwhile idea of inclusiveness has run amok.

Other communities see these problems as all too real, noting that it’s wrong for outsiders to appropriate another group’s cherished symbols, as when a sports team calls themselves the Redskins.  Most social progressives argue that it’s equally a mistake to mislabel or ignore others if the effect is to place a community on the margins of American life, as we’ve seen in recent complaints that Academy Award nominations feature too few Hollywood professionals of color.

Sometimes the offenses committed against groups are blatant and criminal, demanding a response.  Police shootings of unarmed suspects and the treatment of women in parts of Africa and elsewhere only hint at what is a long list of justifiable grievances.  More subtle are complaints of how affinity groups are named in the media, along with concerns about who gets to tell their stories.  Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall street, native American groups, veterans organizations and countless others are tuned to pick up linguistic slights they see as representing deeper animosities.  Were the occupiers of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge “felons,” or freedom-loving “militiamen?”  What does it mean at Princeton that the name of Woodrow Wilson is attached to one of it’s prestigious schools?  Should the former president be known primarily as a “political progressive” or a “racist?”  And there is even  one American college that is embroiled in a mini-controversy over whether their food court should be permitted to serve “General Tao’s Chicken.” Is the kitchen’s botched attempt to serve a dish with apparent Chinese roots a case of “cultural misappropriation?”

As these questions swirl through the culture it seems that our collective nerve endings have become raw.  Americans seem to hear slights from their neighbors rather than empathy.  More than a few observers of our national scene wonder if the middle will hold, whether the United States is still sufficiently united to be a functioning culture, let alone a “great society.”

There are no simple answers.  Especially on this subject, individual perceptions matter. The charges of “inquistic colonization” or offensive omission are the prerogatives of any wounded party to at least express.

From a communication perspective it is important to note that we are all affected by status issues: those topics in a culture that provoke ordinary citizens to ask if their interests are adequately acknowledge and protected.  Politicians sometimes call these hot topics—abortion rights, equal access to good schools and a decent job, respect for religious beliefs, respect for gender differences—the “third rails” of American politics.  In a subway the third rail is the train’s power source, carrying upwards of 1500 volts that can instantly fry any human that touches it.

Status issues arise and dominate our public discourse when enough Americans believe their cultural legitimacy is being put at risk by the hostile actions of a political institution.

I find it helpful to remember that a secure place under the umbrella of a state is part of any citizen’s birthright.  We expect to have our legitimate interests respected if not honored by others.  It is sometimes easier to accept claims of marginalization if we understand this fact. Here’s the point: fears expressed in a rhetoric of anger may lead us to overlook the simple need of every citizen and their tribes to feel acknowledged.


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