February 27 2013
What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Juliet was no politician.
On February 12, the U.S. Senate reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) despite 22 dissenting Republican votes. Social media exploded with shouts for these 22 senators to be voted out of office. Surely these dissenters would have to be backward, right wing extremists in order to oppose a bill intended to protect women from violence. Well, not exactly.
Molly Ball of The Atlantic wondered why anyone would take such a politically septic stance, especially considering that the GOP lost by an 11-point margin among women voters last November. She sat down with Christina Villegas, a visiting fellow at the conservative Independent Women's Forum. Villegas pointed to many specifics of the act -- such as the targeted areas of violence and the "mandatory-arrest" policy, along with waste and fraud -- that could be made more effective and accountable. Villegas' objections may be well intentioned, but when these concerns are labeled as opposition, the act's supporters label dissenters as pro-abuse and anti-women.
When asked if opposing the VAWA for relatively minor objections was worth it, given the accompanying depiction as being anti-women, Villegas responded, "Having the courage to question various sections of this bill doesn't make you pro-abuse or anti-women. No bill should receive unconditional support because its intentions are noble or its title sounds beneficial." Though I support the VAWA, I have to agree with this philosophy. All issues should be open to debate and revision.
Politically-charged titles are nothing new, and politicians are smart about how they use language. As Ball pointed out in another article, when President Obama and Vice President Biden announced proposals for new gun legislation earlier this year, they didn't use the words "gun control" once. They side-stepped such an alienating, big-government term and opted to instead speak of "gun violence" and "gun-violence legislation," to much success.
This reminds me of how my mother spoke to my dog. Every few months we would be off to the "v-e-t," but never to the "vet," so as to not raise any suspicions. The vet's office never changed, but our dog's reluctance to go did.
Rhetorical manipulation clouds reality. We aren't debating the facts anymore, but how the facts are delivered. Labels can be used to make dissenters seem heartless or to avoid scaring off moderate supporters. Labels can be used to create the illusion of change and reform, while remaining ideologically stagnant. Is the political science realm ruled by headlines? Do other scientists debate solely based on their papers' abstracts?
But we are as bad as the politicians. We label ourselves as the Democratic vote, Republican vote, white vote, black vote, gay vote, female vote. Once you label yourself, you can be catered to, focus groups can be assembled, and you can be won over. You aren't dynamic, open to discussion, or capable of a varied position. You are a statistic with "known" political positions. You are a dog that can be thrown the correctly worded bone and remain happy.
So don't label yourself.
When you do, the American two-party system forces you to fall on one side of an issue, no matter how multi-faceted. This structures a damaging debate between parties, where conceding a point means "losing" it to the other side. So instead of conceding, we reword and repackage. But politics shouldn't be an us-versus-them discussion. We are all American. Labeling those with other views as "them" discounts -- even vilifies -- valuable perspectives.
Don't discount the opposition without checking their sources. Instead of seeing a headline stating that the Violence Against Women Act received "no help" from 22 Republican senators and saying "vote them out of office," learn from them. Understand why they dissented; don't just automatically hate them for it. Issues are never as cut and dry as "for" or "against," even though we usually vote this way. For or against; Republican or Democrat; chocolate or vanilla. Be curious and investigate the entire scope of the issue. You may still come to the same conclusion, but your wisdom is more stable with a comprehensive understanding.
Sure, labels and headlines are the first things you see, but don't be superficial. Dig deeper. You may see me, my height, my extremely athletic stance and think, "He's good at basketball."