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“Freedom” Claims: The Seeds of a National Crack Up

“Freedom” as used in many public forums is stretched beyond what the founders of the country probably had it mind.

Generally speaking, there are words that we can use that make it less likely we will hear challenges to our views. These are words like “truth,” “honesty,” “education,” “freedom” or “justice.”  These broad evocations of transcendent values are intended to beg for acceptance.  Hanging ideas on them will likely subdue opposition. Rhetoricians call them “God terms.”

“Freedom” is clearly Exhibit A.  Presumably, you are safe from an rebuke if your reasons for acting include the exercise of tried and true personal “freedoms.” The term is like an automatic “get out of jail” card.

But “freedom” as used in many public forums today is stretched beyond what the founders of the country surely had it mind. It seems like people will defend every crazy and bad choice today under the banner of a person’s “right” to act as they see fit.  Given this logic, any action is defensive as a representation of a core American birthright. While most of us are not fooled, the urge to wrap a bad idea in the eulogistic term is a deeply ingrained human habit.

Recently Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio badgered Dr. Anthony Fauci in a House hearing, suggesting that the expert on infectious diseases was impinging on a person’s freedom be urging the use of face masks. It’s a feature of his rhetorical style to not drop a point. His repetition of the word seemed to be based on the intellectually dishonest belief that he had Fauci trapped in some sort of values conundrum.  See the exchange here:


The Director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases patently noted that the issue wasn’t freedom at all, but a simple matter of following best public health practices during the worst public health crisis in a generation. Masks have dramatically reduced the spread of the covid-19 virus. But Jordan would have none of it, and continued to practice this common form of rhetorical malfeasance. Similarly-minded folks have noted that it is apparently a violation of their personal freedoms to pay the federal government fees for using federal lands to graze their animals, or to pay taxes, or to register a boat with local authorities, or to use the visitors’ entrance to the United States Capitol.

The bloat in the meaning of freedom makes us all potential victims.

Even more troubling, we continue to pay dearly for using “personal freedom” as a rhetorical cover to ward off attempts to regulate handguns and assault weapons. Some who are familiar with the “right to carry” case the Supreme Court is considering believe it will continue to strike down a number of local restrictions, leaving the rest of us to risk our personal safety so others can be “free” to brandish weapons. Armed Americans can now enter some state houses, college campuses and various businesses.

Language has consequences. The bloat in the meaning of “freedom” makes us all potential victims.  If opinion-leading media and the courts continue to put the vast majority at risk by tacitly accepting an overly expansive definition of personal freedom, we will surely enshrine the “shooter society” we have become. (The Second Amendment predicate and qualifier of “well-regulated militias” seems to have been defined out of existence.) All of the predictable post-hoc prayers for the dead won’t begin to mitigate our complicity.  We can never become a true civil society if the most desperate and ill among us have the right to keep a lethal weapon inches from their hands.

Words That Wound

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It turns out that we are all poets of the dark side: we can muster an entire string of devil terms to deflate a person, without ever resorting to a dictionary or thesaurus.

We all know the childhood aphorism that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  It sells itself as a shield against verbal assaults that kids must sometimes endure. And now, it seems, we can include presidential candidates as well.  But it’s so wrong. The language of personal attack can be devastating. We are selling language short if we dismiss its power to inflict psychic pain.

Perhaps a third of the ordinary language we use every day includes nouns, verbs and adjectives that can be chosen to praise or blame.  I think of myself as a “scholar” and an “educator.”  But perhaps to some of my students I’m a “windbag” or a “pedant.”  The first two words are of the type known as”God terms,” expressions that not only name, but also judge positively.  The second two are “devil terms,” renaming and judging downward.  Naming upward with God terms naturally binds us together and suggests a certain amount of empathy. Though we sometimes do it for the wrong reasons, praise is often a small act of grace, as when we describe someone we work with everyday as a “smart” and a “major asset” to the organization.

But it turns out that we are all poets of the dark side: we can muster an entire string of devil terms to deflate a person or their actions without ever resorting to a dictionary or thesaurus. In recent years I’ve witnessed a grandmother thoughtlessly calling her daughter a “bad” mother for seeking a medical solution that would improve a grandchild’s hearing.  We’ve also seen a presidential candidate calling a competitor “weak” and “low energy:” a news anchor calling their opposite at a competing network “savage” and “vindictive.”  We are supremely equipped to throw the weight of our judgment around with the abandon of a professional wrestler.

This pattern which has always been a part of private communication has increasingly bled into our public life.  A New York Times listing of public insults from Donald Trump includes a lot of language about other individuals not typically heard in the remarks of a presidential aspirant:  “Hypocrite” (Bill Clinton), “dumb as a rock” (Glenn Beck), “a total embarrassment” (Jeb Bush), “totally incompetent” (Hillary Clinton), “a crude dope” (former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter), “very stupid” (the current administration), and so on.1 To be sure, the wounded are often quick to respond in kind.  And so, as the popular phrase goes, “our rhetoric escalates” or, more accurately, devolves.

Some individuals function so commonly in this mode that it seems apparent that this kind of rhetoric originates from some unmet needs: perhaps a defensive urge to strike first in order to ward off comments about one’s own vulnerabilities.  A rapid barrage of judgments seems to represent a line in the sand, a warning of a person’s willingness to strike back. This is obviously the realm of the bully whose vulnerabilities are hidden behind the identity of a rhetorical pugilist. Not only does this political season feature some of these folks as potential political and moral leaders, but most of us have had to learn to cope with this kind verbal aggression in other parts of our lives. And then there are the genuine human horrors portrayed in film saga’s like David Mamet’s Glengarry, Glen Ross  (1992) or  Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop (2009).  As in life, some of the characters’ taste for toxic put-downs turns out to be surprisingly moralizing, helping us learn to cherish relations that show more civility.

The hectoring and intimidation of sharp verbal rebukes is often its own reward for the impaired person who depends on them. In addition, an observation that marks another as a “fool,” or “worthless” offers a shooting gallery that can draw audiences to witness the guilty pleasures of a rhetorical take-down. In the age of the troll these diatribes are  issued with the relentless frequency of machine guns emptying out their lethal contents.  When writers talk about the “coarser culture” than the one their parents knew, this kind of vituperative rhetoric is often what they mean.

The problem readily suggests its own solution: It is sometimes better so say nothing than to toss out a harsh judgment about another that will hurt more than help. It’s also good to remember that such language is often seen as self-reflexive; many understand it as better describing the source rather than the target.


1Jasmine Lee and Kevin Quealy, “People, Places and Things Insulted by Donald Trump,” New York Times, January 31, 2016, Week in Review, p. 4.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

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