Stop the Attacks


American civil discourse is under attack. Frighteningly, the enemy is already within the gates.

But don’t panic. It should be easy enough to defeat this offensive, if only we have the will to update our spellcheck software. Our nemesis can’t harm us unless we ourselves deploy it improperly. It’s the common word “attack.”

Readers can hardly wade on to the internet in 2019 without witnessing an attack. In September Newsy headlined: “Hurricane Dorian Finishes Attack On Bahamas Before Heading North.” The Washington Post explains how online “attacks” against Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) are escalating. Meanwhile, the L.A. Times wonders: “Can Joe Biden withstand Trump’s attacks and his own stumbles?”

If these “attacks” keep up, somebody may get hurt.

The problem isn’t the news coverage these stories are getting. The problem is the choice of words the journalists are using to cover the stories. None of these stories represented an “attack” as the word should be used. For example, hurricane Dorian can’t “attack” anything, because it’s a storm, not a living being. In this context, the writer is making it seem as if Dorian consciously took action; it didn’t. It simply went where the weather pushed it.

Note also that Dorian is an “it,” not a “he.” Hurricanes, even those from the pre-1978 era when they were given exclusively female names, have no gender. There may be man-caused global warming (or there may not) but there are no male storms.

Meanwhile, the president and his political opponents may (and do!) repeatedly “insult” each other. They may “blast” each other. They may “scorn” or “disrespect” or even “dis” each other. But there’s absolutely no violence involved. It’s just words, and as the cliché teaches, “Words can never hurt you.”

“Attack” isn’t the only word that’s being misused. You’ve probably heard about “treason” as well. No less an authority than the U.S. Constitution defines it this way: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” But many are throwing the word around for things that aren’t even crimes, let alone treasonous.

Economist Paul Krugman accuses “Big Finance,” whoever that may be, of treason (apparently because it opposes Elizabeth Warren). “It’s treason!” Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.) said of President Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president. Trump reflects the word right back at congressional Democrats, repeatedly accusing Schiff of “treason.” Trump also thinks former FBI officials James Comey and Andrew McCabe are guilty of treason.

There are actual problems in the world

In a time when one country is using high tech weapons to destroy the oil facilities in another country, it cheapens the word to use “attack” to mean “insult.” There’s certainly enough actual violence in our world today to keep the word “attack” fully employed. Likewise, it cheapens the accusation of “treason” if the user defines the word as meaning “somebody saying something I dislike.” Treason charges should only be raised when one takes up arms against the United States. 

There are better verbs for our restive times, and we need to work together to find them. That might require us to do a better job of taking our political opponents seriously and paying attention to them. Maybe Democrats could all agree to watch Fox News and Republicans could tune in to MSNBC for a few hours a week. Call it opposition research, if you like, but we might find that the “other side” is using the same words our side uses, and is using them just as incorrectly. Perhaps we’d even discover ways to disarm and disagree without being disagreeable.

In any event, Americans (especially journalists) should retire the casual use of the word “attack,” and push back when a political figure claims “treason.”

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