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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Words matter. Trump bears a responsibility for El Paso | Lynne Tirrell

‘Just as the killer is responsible for his own actions, Trump is responsible for his ongoing incitement of racism and xenophobia.’

"From his campaign rhetoric to his daily onslaught of divisive tweets issued under the banner of the presidential seal, Donald Trump has stoked the flames of white fear and hate to fuel his own power. No longer hiding behind what philosopher Jennifer Saul has called “racial fig leaves”, Trump’s language has become increasingly explicit and vitriolic. His fans are following suit with ever more violent actions. It can be hard to make a causal claim connecting speech and action, between nasty discourse and harms that go beyond the social or psychological. But there is a case to be made.

The white supremacist who drove 10 hours to kill 22 innocent civilians at an El Paso Walmart last weekend was a Trump fan. He aimed to kill Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Just as the killer is responsible for his own actions, Trump is responsible for his ongoing incitement of racism and xenophobia. It is long past time for Americans to hold Trump accountable. Trump’s rhetoric, fitting what some researchers call “stochastic terrorism”, has emboldened white supremacists to violence.

Like other stochastic terrorists, Trump spews his incendiary rhetoric, licensing random others to take up the call into action. He whips up the emotions of his base, inculcating white fears of invasion. He calls Hispanics in America an “infestation”. At the same time as he targets people of color, he attacks journalists, and those he deems “the liberal elite”, claiming his own authority as the only solution to problems he has invented. Using tweets and rallies, Trump primes his political base to violent emotions, attitudes and actions.

Promoting violence has long been part of Trump’s brand identity. At rallies, he tells his fans to “get rid” of protesters, to “knock the crap out of them”, and promises to pay their legal fees. He has complained that “nobody wants to hurt anybody any more” and gets his fans in the mood to hurt others. Trump fans love that he set policy to block immigration from what he deems “shithole countries”.

Excluding predominantly white Norway reveals his racism, but more chilling was this: “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.” Eliminate them. Such language is often a precursor to genocide.

Focusing on people coming to the US at the southern border, Trump often uses the words invasion and infestation. These words are standard in the Trump campaign’s Facebook ads from 2015 to now, scream in all caps from his Twitter feed and stoke his fans at pep rallies. Invasion treats potential immigrants as enemies; infestation treats them as pests.

The word “infestation” matters for several reasons.

First, our words don’t actually work just one-by-one. Each word is part of a network of related terms that give it conceptual force. If someone calls a group “an infestation”, hearers can immediately infer that the group being discussed is unwanted, dangerous or harmful. We talk about infestation of insects or rodents, so the very use of this term brings these dehumanizing concepts into play.

Second, an infestation is something to be stopped and then be rid of, usually by driving out or killing the pests. Follow-up actions thereby become licensed, an outgrowth of the logic of the words.

Talking about infestation puts extermination on the table. Such discourse can lead to mass murder and genocide.

A 1992 speech by Rwandan political leader Leon Mugesera is widely considered to have launched genocidal mobilization in Rwanda. Mugesera repeatedly called Rwanda’s Tutsis “invaders”. Like Trump, who recently said that four Democratic congresswomen should go back to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Mugesera said that the Tutsi “invaders” should be sent back to where they came from: “I am telling you that your home is in Ethiopia, that we will send you by the Nyabarongo so you can get there quickly.” The Nyabaraongo river runs to the Nile. After steady repetition of this rhetoric, the river grew clogged with Tutsi bodies during the genocide. Sending them back to Ethiopia, literally. Words became horrific action.

It matters what we say to and about each other. We speak to praise or blame, to threaten or warn, to incite, or calm or cajole, to promise, to apologize, to insult, to educate, to confuse and distract, and so much more. Language not only describes, it also stirs emotions. Trump is skilled at stoking fear through emphatic repetition of false claims about non-existent dangers. This is irresponsible.

Language never acts alone; it is always part and parcel of our social practices. Language is the warp and woof of our social fabric. Our ways of referring to and speaking about people shape and convey social hierarchy, open and close possibilities. We live and die amid the explicit structures of social reality made through what we say and through the formal and informal policies thus enacted.

Like threats or promises, a policy is language that shapes future action. Speech licenses action. Saying, “I feel cold” is a statement of fact, but it may also license you to adjust the thermostat. Saying “She’s a Tutsi” in Rwanda 1994 issued a license to kill. In 2019 America, by tracking Trump’s incendiary rhetoric, we can predict outbreaks of violence against immigrants, black people and Latinos, and all vulnerable groups.

Knowing that language matters, the El Paso terrorist posted an anti-Latino and anti-immigration manifesto on 8chan just moments before his brutal domestic terror spree. Perhaps he sought others to take up his cause, as he had in taking up the racist licenses that Trump has been issuing for years.

Why this individual chose to actually exercise the licenses that Trump repeatedly issues is unclear. What is clear is that these licenses should not be issued. Donald Trump must be held responsible for the increasingly public and virulent growth of white supremacist ideology and actions across the USA.

In his prepared remarks about the El Paso massacre, and in subsequent tweets, Trump has made no admission that his own speech and policies are in fact racist, bigoted, fueling white supremacy and igniting xenophobic violence. Trump’s talk of infestations and invasions, his policies of border detentions and family separations, and his demand for a wall to block Mexicans, must be condemned immediately.

These “sinister tools” of social division and potential genocide must cease.

Lynne Tirrell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut and affiliated with the University of Connecticut’s Human Rights Institute."

Words matter. Trump bears a responsibility for El Paso | Lynne Tirrell

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