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The Stick and Stones of our Political Dysfunction

I just read that a presidential candidate has come up with a new name for his political opponent. Yes, the name was appropriate, and it was certainly snarky, but it wasn’t mean enough. Thinking I might be able to help, I started to conjure up ‘meaner’ names. To do that, I needed to venture back to my junior and high school days when young boys appeared at our peak at coming up with disparaging names for our classmates. I needed to reach back for some inspiration from my youth.

We might be flunking English, but we knew what adjectives were. We could let fly the nastiest, meanest, foulest adjectives known to adolescents worldwide. We would use adjectives to disparage body types, body parts, your mother’s body parts, and if particularly mean spirited, your masculinity. We would creatively compare you to certain animals and their foulest behaviors. And when our creative juices dried up, we could always refer to you as [name of animal] excrement. Oh, boy! To be reduced to the droppings of a dog was the ultimate expression of contempt.

Now I must warn you about spending too much time recalling the names people called you back in your adolescent days. It might allow for resentment and anger to bubble up that will serve no purpose. So, I offer you this little trick that has worked for me, but please be cautious.

My trick is this; re-consider the source. If I recall being called a particularly nasty name by, let’s just say, Rick, the halfback on the football team, I’ll then look up on social media what became of Rick. If he’s a thrice-divorced alcoholic loser, then I feel that justice was served. If, on the other hand, Rick became a pastor at a small country church, then I’ll rejoice in the power of redemption. That allows me always to forgive folks like Rick and all the other name-callers of note.

I say this because I too might benefit from being forgiven as I must confess to some of my own name-calling. I wish it was only to defend myself as when someone calls you a ‘girly-tard,’ then you must respond with something equally as vile. If you don’t, the name could go viral and soon everyone will be calling you ‘girly-tard.’ But your response would sometimes result in a stutter as you furiously attempt to come up with an even nastier retort. “Well, you’re…. you… a rabid dog tick. Ja…” Everyone looks at you as you’re an even bigger piece of dog poop than they thought. Sometimes the name-calling would escalate, and sometimes fisty-cuffs would break out. To a few, being called a ‘rabid dog tick’ required a physical response. That’s what happens when adjectives prove ineffective.

My mother had a couple of memes she would repeat in her attempt to help four sons and two daughters navigate life. One was that ‘life is unfair.’ The other was more a saying; ‘Stick and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.’ Young boys are mostly literal, so I recall attempting to unpack the ‘stick and stone’ thing. I know why she’d repeat it often because we’d come home and tell her the nasty names du jour of the day, and she could tell that sometimes it hurt. With time, we grew to see the wisdom in the saying and took it to heart. We came to see that name-calling was immature adolescent behavior, and we would eventually find more productive ways to use adjectives. That turned out to be mostly true. But only mostly.

Having survived school bullies and name-callers, adult life started mostly free of the juvenile name-calling with the possible exception of what you’d call an old lady driving far below the speed limit. “You old blankety-blank… ” was uttered under your breath, unless you were having a particularly bad day. Even then, she couldn’t hear you.

Over the years, one would have to be a bit oblivious not to notice the culture slowly changing. It has become courser, less patient, and angrier. For far too many, injecting words describing sex with mothers and wishes for God to damn you became part of everyday vernacular told straight to your face. One could not stroll a mall without hearing pre-adolescent boys and girls talking in the foulest of terms, sometimes yelling it into their smartphones. In a couple of years, these kids grew up to become full-time tweeters and YouTubers and took their language with them. I suspect they saw each other as liberated and sophisticated. Language is often used to ‘signal’ to your tribe, your ‘hipness.’

Eventually, I began to pay attention to politics and political rhetoric. I remember debates between political foes, which were sometimes heated but always respectful. Adjectives were used but often to disparage the other’s policy positions. Some did call the others a ‘neo’ this or a liberal that, but only to differentiate between different positions on the political spectrum. It appeared that calling an opponent personal names was considered poor form and juvenile, which wouldn’t reflect well on one’s fitness to hold office. Who would vote for someone who acted more a seventh-grader than an adult?

Unfortunately, this cultural shift into courser disparaging language did take firm root in our politics. One would need to be near brain dead not to notice the use of creative adjectives to describe even the physical characteristics of one’s political opponents today. Articulating the policy deficits of your opponent appears old fashioned and ineffective, so one must attempt to destroy the other using personal invectives. Soon, my girl was calling your guy ‘morbidly obese.’ Then my guy called my girl ‘morbidly corrupt.’ Hoping to score a knockout punch, someone came up with ‘president tweety.’ Ouch! Ted was just not Ted, he was ‘lyin Ted.’ Then whole memes took root because of ‘orange hair.’ Small hands somehow became a physical deformity. Even ponies, dogs, and soldiers were disparaged when someone was called a ‘lying dog-faced pony soldier.’ All this and the debate has just begun.

Sadly, political pundits and strategists believe that destroying your political opponent using personal insults is effective and best be mastered if considering a political career. If that is true, then I think I might consider a new career and become a full time ‘insult’ creator. I would come up with a group of my very best insults and test them on a focus group. I’d hook up my group to blood pressure monitors, and when the readings went sky high, I’d know I have a winner. Then I’d roll it to the media for a trial run. If they run with it, then high-fives all around.

Sorry, mother. Words hurt. May the best insult win!

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