How have we gone from debating the economic implications of minimum wage laws and the meaning of life to claiming that one side hates the poor and the other side hates babies? Through what I call “rhetorical armament.”
Rhetorical armament is not primarily based on logic. It is based on fear. At its core, it is the same basic problem that underlies resume inflation, overuse of superlatives and nuclear proliferation. No candidate wishes to tell the “simple truth” on their resume if they know their competitors are embellishing their resumes. This creates a cycle of increasing resume embellishment.
No friend wants to claim their vacation was “normal” when their friends claim their vacations were “amazing” and “incredible.” So, each friend escalates their use of superlatives, pushing the conversation to increasing levels of absurdity. No country wants to have traditional weapons when others have nuclear weapons, which leads to nuclear armament. In each scenario, de-escalation is preferable for all parties, but each party’s fear of the other’s behavior leads to poorer outcomes for all parties involved.
Similarly, no political party wants to call the other party’s policies ‘well-intentioned but flawed’ because they fear the other party will accuse them of hating babies or poor people, which would lead to them losing moral credibility. And so, both parties seek to beat each other to the punch by escalating their rhetoric, each making wilder and wilder moral accusations.
This is, in part, why we are where we are. We have allowed fear of the other to drive us into rhetorical armament, the result of which is felt every time we turn on the news.
There are no quick solutions to this problem because trust and courage do not come quickly. But they are the only way towards rhetorical disarmament. We disarm by leaning into our fears of what the other might do and choosing to behave decently anyway. We do this by proclaiming that the other side is well-intentioned, and engaging with them. We do this by reminding our friends and our families that the other side does not hate babies, or poor people, and that they too, like us, love America.
Chris Musser lives in Buckhead and is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.