>Flickr/Thomas Hawk

Does the “Just Words” Argument Hold?

National leaders' rhetoric plays a big role in shaping public attitudes.


This election year has been unfortunately characterized by one candidate’s tendency toward horrific election campaign narratives — saturated with discriminatory and violent rhetoric and targeting women, immigrants, Muslims, Latinos, and more. In the face of criticism against these narratives, Donald Trump and his supporters who echo his beliefs have responded with, “They’re ‘just’ words,” “It’s harmless guy talk,” or “We have no time for political correctness.” But are words harmless? We say, emphatically, no.

Language and public narratives from our national leaders — whether politicians, celebrities or other social influencers — infect our collective values and belief systems, and directly correlate to individual and collective behaviors as well as institutionalized hatred and bigotry. Public narratives show up in political agendas, policies, systems and practices, perpetuating a culture of racism, xenophobia and rape.

Trump has frequently used anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric in the name of national security, rallying supporters to place universal blame upon these groups. In December 2015, he reiterated a previous claim that “thousands and thousands of Muslims in New Jersey” were celebrating when the towers fell on 9/11. Since December, he has also called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

His comments about women have been equally disturbing. A tape from 2005 recently surfaced in which Trump says fame allows him to “do anything” to women, including “grab them by the pussy.” And “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

Many of his supporters love it: “Happy Days” actor Scott Baio said, “I like Trump because Trump is not a politician, he talks like a guy. And ladies out there, this is what guys talk about when you’re not around. So if you’re offended by it, grow up, ok? … This is the way the world works. It’s not a big thing.” In the meantime, 10 women have come forward saying that Trump did in fact grope or sexually assault them as early as the 1980s.

>Flickr/Thomas Hawk
>Flickr/Thomas Hawk

Yet Trump is not alone in maintaining these attitudes or behaviors. When public leaders, whether politicians or celebrities, use discriminatory, hateful or violent language, justifying these sentiments in the name of national security or “locker-room talk” serves to create a social environment in which discrimination, sexual violence and xenophobia are acceptable and normalized. This then encourages acts of violence and discrimination.

Meanwhile, victims of discrimination, violence or assault may remain silent for fear that those they turn to — including the authorities who are supposed to protect everyone — will uphold these dangerous views and harm them further.

Here’s the reality we live in: The public narrative that is forming in this campaign will last beyond November. Anti-immigrant sentiment is up. Police violence and excessive use of force against Black and Brown communities are being countered by “blue lives matter” campaigns. And 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be raped in their lifetimes, with the majority of cases going unreported.

But we have reached a turning point and a cultural shift is upon us. The fact that this is a national conversation and so many are expressing their outrage is a good sign. We have seen a movement toward addressing abuse of power, racial discrimination, xenophobia and sexual assault.

But progress doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If we want to create a better world, a world in which everyone is treated with respect, then we cannot accept this kind of “just words” excuse. Nor can we ignore the way discriminatory and violent rhetoric against particular groups intersect with each other.

For progress to continue and expand, all of us need to step up. We cannot be silent bystanders: We must speak out against discriminatory, violent and oppressive language in the moment — not just within our own communities but when we see other communities under attack. We must believe victims when they come forward and support them in their pursuit of justice, whatever form that may take. Real change happens when we reach a critical mass of people driving change in their everyday lives.

Many Americans will claim that because they don’t perpetuate xenophobia, racism or sexism, they don’t have anything to do with this fight. But that’s simply not the case. We need more people to be part of the solution and call out their peers and communities when they hear or see harmful language or behaviors. When it comes to culture, we all have something at stake — to dismantle a culture that privileges and values some lives over others. All of us live in it, and all of us must be part of the change.

So speak up. Challenge harmful language in the moment. Support survivors of violence and victims of discrimination who come forward, and share that support publicly. Push back on norms that perpetuate harm, and create new norms that assume the best of all of us. Envision a new and better future. And when we imagine that future, we’re one step closer to building a world in which all of us are valued and safe and welcomed.

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  • About the autor
    Phoebe Schreiner

    The author is vice president and U.S. country director for Breakthrough, a global human rights organization working to make violence against women and girls unacceptable. She has also served with USAID, UN Women, the Civil Society Program of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the Women’s Program of Open Society Foundations, among others. Phoebe holds a Masters in Human Rights from Columbia University and a BA / dual degree in Government and Women’s Studies from Smith College.
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