Our problems right now in this country are practical and moral but they are also rhetorical. To look at the signs at the Women’s March and the Muslim Ban protests was to see people’s disgust and disbelief at the disparity between the language that we see as embodying our national identity at its best—the words of Martin Luther King Jr., the Bill of Rights, Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” inscribed on Lady Liberty—and the vulgar and divisive language of our current commander-in-chief. And we’ve all seen this country’s deep divisions play out on social media, with people on each side of the political spectrum throwing slurs and memes at the other in lieu of thoughtful arguments. You can almost hear the spiteful laughter coming through the screen. I’ve been called a snowflake a few times, and while it doesn’t bother me, it’s hard to respond to those kinds of attacks in a calm and persuasive way. So I can see that it must be extremely hard to be a political leader right now, and to use language responsibly when so many are listening, so eager to spring.
At times, these leaders fail us. It’s disheartening to see a comparatively sensible politician like Lindsey Graham using divisive language to appeal to his party’s base. At his March 4th Clemson town hall, Graham joked, “People came here thinking if you yell at me enough, I’m going to stop being a conservative. I’m not.” This may have been a well-meaning attempt to lighten the mood, but his words here got under my skin. To simply explain his values and the rationale behind his decisions by labeling himself a “conservative” struck me as both an oversimplification and a screen. Especially when we look at history, all “conservatives” are not alike. They have differing views on immigration. Some have sought to strengthen environmental regulation. Hearing his statement, I found myself wondering: casting people into these categories may please Senator Graham’s base today, but in the long run, doesn’t it do more harm than good? This past Sunday, the day after his Columbia town hall, Graham told Fox News that “the left is going insane after Trump won the election.” Here, his words were even more divisive, even more dismissive—as a Democrat, I felt the message was that my opinions are automatically to be disregarded because I don’t vote Republican. To use “insane” as a slur is offensive not only to constituents like me, who are legitimately fearful and angry about the direction our country is heading in, but offensive also to those struggling with mental illness.
This morning, I called Senator Graham’s Midlands office and spoke with a very respectful staffer who listened to my criticism of the senator’s Fox News statement and assured me that my voice would be heard on this topic. I told him, I don’t want to feel that because I did not vote for him, Senator Graham does not represent me. He seemed to get it. Then, even though I’d started off by saying I was calling not to discuss a particular issue but rather the senator’s choice of words, my little outpouring ended up veering toward the topic of the environment, which is a particular concern to me as a mother. And the environment is, unfortunately, a subject we don’t yet know how to discuss. I don’t know how I’ll talk about it with my kids, who are still very young. I worry about it as I cuddle my two year-old and read her books about polar bears and baby rhinos. Scientists are trying to make us face facts, and politicians like Graham seem to forever be trying to sidestep the topic. The potential changes we’re facing globally are incomprehensible, and our language can’t keep up. But as I spoke with this staffer I had the small hope that maybe if we continue to try, bravely and honestly, to speak to those on the other side, there’s a chance we can again feel a sense of common purpose. It is up to us citizens, and to leaders like Graham, to challenge ourselves to make our words better.
Liz Countryman is a writer-in-residence at the University of South Carolina.