Trump's Tweets: Thucydides and the Definition of Words

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Trump’s Tweets: Thucydides and the Definition of Words

The regular meaning of words changed to fit the state of affairs. Insane risk was now bravery for an ally; careful forethought was cowardice; moderation was considered an excuse for being unmanly; circumspection was an unwillingness to commit; heedless attacks were termed manly behaviour, and self-defence was a bland excuse for conspiracy.
The one seeking extreme action was considered trustworthy; anyone who spoke against him was suspicious. If you were a successful conspirator, you were smart; you were clever if you discovered a conspiracy.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (Bk3:82. 2-5), on the civil war in Corcyra, 421 BCE.

Is Thucydides right that in times of social stasis, such as in our “cultural wars”, that words- definition and value- change their meaning? If so there are then implications for free and hate speech?

Mr Trump’s Tweets directed at the four New Democrat Congresswomen in the week 15 to 19 July 2019 drew the predictable ire and fire with charges of ‘racism’. But maybe there is a presumption over the definition, and value, of the word “racism.”

The Tweets, to recap, were two-fold:

First, if the “Four” were unhappy in the US and don't like it they are free to go. He added it is their choice; it’s their free choice to stay or go.

Secondly, they go back to the countries where they came from and fix them up come back and we will see how it works. For only one of the four did this relate to. The comment was misdirected and wrong.

Mainstream US media chorused its condemnation that the President was a racist. A National Review writer thought the President need not say anything while the Democrat wings are in a state of ideological discord; Brendan O'Neil in Spiked (18/7) thought they were racist; but that the “Squad” and Tump need each other as they deploy the same means. The Mark Levin podcast (17/7) saw that the President just let fly- enough is enough- at the haters of the US, while Marina Medvin in Town Hall (18/7), a Russian immigrant, expanded on the lack of gratitude line of what the US offers, then referring to Hirsi Ali, and noting Muslim Congresswomen’s use of the left. Ben Shapiro has been critical of the comments for being shoddy but rightly finds abhorrent the anti-Semitism from some of the “Fresh Face” backbenchers. Theresa May opined the comments were “unacceptable.”

However, if Trump had a game plan- rather than an impromptu visceral Tweets, which I think is what they were – he garnered political capital by pushing public opinion his way. The comments forced Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic moderates and swing state house members to get the Democratic Calvary and infantry in behind a group they don't care to support, because of the electoral risk the Socialist Justice Democrats present but had to for solidarity in an anti-Trump fest.

Podcaster Dan Bongino noted that the Tweets sidelined the 2020 Presidential contenders in the media cycle, giving front seat attention to the four women Justice Democrats, and help identify and label Democrats as the party of the Four Justice Democrats.

The anti Trumpers unanimously threw the brickbats of racism. What is not questioned but assumed, is the definition of racism. A discriminatory categorisation based on a racial attribute derived from a faulty inaccurate, 'all' substituted for 'some', form of generalised stereotyping.

Racism as a term is value-laden and bears a seriously moral pejorative tone and a stigma that sticks. It relies on common sense, commonly held, definition with understood values. The Tweets on their face do not disclose racism per se. Yet, like looking for the meaning of a religious text they have to be construed and interpretative means (heuristics) applied.

One starting point may be an ipso facto predicate that Trump is a racist; he has made Tweets and therefore the Tweets are inherently racist. The identity of the ‘author’ colours the moral meaning and value. That does not allow for general application of the term.

The term ‘racism’ is widely used as a directed pejorative label to taint and discredit the character of a person in a differing or opposing moral discourse. Much like the overused but misused term ‘fascist’. John Stuart Mill observed in On Liberty the use of invective to characterise a speaker rather than the argument and shut down an opponent. It is not new as the Marquess of Halifax said of words: “Amongst all the Engines of Dissention, there hath been none more powerful in all Times, than the fixing Names upon one another of, Contumely and Reproach... throw it with their dull malice at the Head of those they do not like…”

What we are seeing is a transformation- in the social context of common understandings- of the definition of racism. The meaning of racism may now go beyond the core and penumbra shades of meaning. John Nolte reported that some 32 per cent of Democrats now hold it is now “racist for any white politician to criticize the political views of a politician of colour.” The figure for the Republican Party and Independents is 16 per cent.
Does the Vanguard of the new extended definition automatically carry the previous definition? The ambiguity is Orwellian in a sense because there is now no consensus ad idem over definition, but one is suborned or cajoled to think that there is.

Paramountcy of racial identity, not opinion or its merits or faults, becomes the measure. The extended definition is one that is deployed by disingenuously stigmatising, not a person's words or argument, but a person’s character owing to race. Stigmatising on this basis directly inhibits- if not shuts down- free speech, for a mere difference of opinion or because of an expressed opinion based on skin colour. Is it the case in the US that if a person of colour says, in a political debate, that the Moon is made of cheese, is then racist for a white person to contradict that opinion?

The class of items now said to be racist in the extended definition has the effect of diluting the value weighting and definition of the older core and penumbral meanings of racism, while at the same time grossly and prejudicially inflating the compass of the stigma value.

Free speech can be curtailed and circumscribed by fear: the bar is lowered for hate speech allegations which may become more noxious, which poses a problem for those who wish to legislate for hate speech.

It is the case that Thucydides- and John Stuart Mill- are right.

Graham Hill MA (Hons) L.LB (Hons)
20 July 2019. Revised 21 July 2019