Fighting words are all we seem to hear today. They pop up at the dinner table with family and friends, dominate social media and even helped incite an insurrection at our U.S. Capitol. They are present in the daily rhetoric we hear from politicians, the media’s talking heads and even our neighbors.
The war on drugs. The war on terror. The war on poverty. Cancel culture. Political correctness. Messaging wars. “How to Destroy the Republican Party, in 3 Easy Steps” (The Nation); “5 Ways to Fight the Left and Make Your Life Better” (Investor Times).
The use of the words of war in political discourse, while not new, has escalated and infused our entire culture with a vitriol I have not witnessed in my lifetime. Moreover, these fighting words today are personal, not just political. Neighbors not only hate the politicians of the other party, they hate each other.
How did we get here?
Fighting words were first defined by the United States Supreme Court in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire in 1942. Words which “by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.” The Court later ruled in 1949 (Terminiello v. City of Chicago) that the First Amendment does not protect fighting words that produce a clear and present danger but words which invite dispute and cause unrest are protected.
Unfortunately, today the line blurs between fomenting unrest and dispute and creating a clear and present danger to one another, to civility and to democracy itself. The constant use of fighting words by all sides is core to the inability of our elected leaders to govern. We have made a pandemic political, and, in the process, unnecessarily harmed our children’s education, our economy, and our loved ones. The winner in this dispute? SARS-CoV-2 (or more commonly known as COVID-19).
It is time to set aside the use of fighting words and focus on what brings us together not what pulls us apart. If we all did this, perhaps our example might persuade our elected officials to follow. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is not war, not even sport. “Winning” does not mean someone else must lose. Setting aside harsh rhetoric and the hatred that follows creates a path to shared solutions that work for all of us in the long run. Let us work together to restore civility and a spirit of collaboration to our capitols, our city halls and school boards and our kitchen tables.
Mike Erlandson is a public policy consultant living in Minneapolis, former chair of the State DFL Party, and served as chief of staff to the late U.S. Congressman Martin Olav Sabo (MN-5). firstname.lastname@example.org