Word-Thinking Replaces Thinking in America - Scott Adam's Blog

Word-Thinking Replaces Thinking in America

In 2015, candidate Trump self-identified as a nationalist, as in putting the needs of his country above the needs other countries. His opponents noticed that most of his supporters were white. Yes, they were nationalists who happened to be white. Nothing wrong with that, so far.

Then Trump’s critics turned “nationalists who happen to be mostly white” into “white nationalists.”

White nationalists are racists by definition.

But once you have labeled a leader a white nationalist, which most of us agree implies racism, is it a stretch to say that person is also a white supremacist? After all, what’s the point of being racist if you don’t think your subgroup is the most awesome one?

Human beings are not rational creatures. We are easy to program with what I call “word-thinking” of the type that evolves nationalist, to nationalists who are mostly white, to white nationalists, to white supremacists. There is no logic connecting those things, just similarities in words.

This happens on both sides of the political divide. If Democrats say they want universal healthcare, and they self-label as Democratic Socialists, you can depend on the pundits on the right to relabel them to “socialists.” But that’s not the end of it. Once you have labelled someone a socialist, is it really that different from communism? In the rational world, there’s a big difference, but in the world of word-thinking, once you are a Democratic Socialist, you’re a socialist, and once you are a socialist, you’re basically a communist, and once you are a communist, you are basically Stalin, and once you are Stalin, you have the blood of tens-of-million of people on your hands because the trouble will start any day now, right?

Do you think I’m exaggerating or over-simplifying? If you are a Trump hater, you are probably yelling at this page, trying to tell me about “all the thousands of things Trump does that prove he is a white supremacist.”

But you might be missing the main point here, that those “thousands of things” are just more of the same word-thinking. The president’s penchant for hyperbole, provocation, and simplicity gets him in trouble time and time again. For example:

  1. In Trump’s announcement speech, he suggested immigrants are bringing crime into this country (rape, murder, etc.). But the way he worded it allowed his critics to word-think that ordinary message into “all Mexicans are rapists,” which is not what he said. I’ll add to this discussion that most undocumented immigrants coming across the southern border are male. And if you introduce a million males to any population, you probably double the rape risk compared to introducing an equal number of male and female immigrants. Good people can disagree on how much crime we want to accept in return for being open to immigration, but only word-thinking makes Trump a racist for suggesting immigration brings extra crime.
  2. Trump suggested a halt to immigration from Muslim countries that are most likely to allow a terrorist to slip through. But not all Muslim countries. His critics turned that into a “Muslim ban” to word-think a known problem in identifying people from some countries into proof of racism.
  3. Trump called countries with poor education systems and economies “shithole countries” in a smallish meeting on immigration. When his critics took that conversation out of the context of the small meeting, in which everyone understood he was talking about the merit system for immigration, the word-thinkers morphed shithole country into shithole people and declared Trump a racist.
  4. Trump called Judge Curiel “Mexican” and questioned his ability to be unbiased, given that Trump’s critics had branded him an enemy of all Hispanics in this country. In the legal system, complaining about such potential bias is normal and expected. And Trump’s use of “Mexican” would have been more artful if he said “of Mexican heritage,” to indicate that the judge is American. Word-thinking turned a normal legal process of challenging potential bias into “Trump doesn’t think Hispanics can be good judges.”
  5. Recently Trump used the word “infestation” to describe the well-documented rodent problem in Baltimore. Critics used word-thinking to turn that into a comment about the people of Baltimore being rodents.
  6. Trump has spoken of the caravans of immigrants, and the scope of illegal immigration in general, as an “invasion.” Obama used the same word on the same topic, but the word-thinkers pointed to the word as more “proof” that Trump is a white supremacist.
  7. After the Charlottesville tragedy, Trump explained his understanding that there were four groups in Charlottesville. There were “fine people” who were not racists and simply disagreed on Confederate statues, and there were “bad people” including Antifa and the white nationalists and neo-Nazis who he emphasized should be “condemned totally.” His critics used word-thinking and the complexity of the situation to say he had actually called neo-Nazis “fine people.”
  8. When the “fine people” hoax is debunked, which is as easy as showing the transcript of what Trump said, his critics retreat into word-thinking and declare that no “fine people” could be “marching with neo-Nazis.” The sleight of hand here is that different groups came to the same general area, but the non-racist protesters were not “marching with” anyone. I interviewed several attendees and learned that the promotional materials for “Unite the Right” did not indicate it was organized by racists, unless you recognized the names of the speakers, who are not household names.

Again, this sort of word-thinking works both ways. For example, the Uranium-One “scandal” was mostly word-thinking that conflated uranium with nuclear weapons so it looked as if we sold our most important military asset to Russia. I’ll spare you the details of how off-base that is.

Most of our political topics are too complicated for voters to comprehend. And we’re not terribly good at thinking in general. So politicians have figured out that word-thinking is the most effective form of persuasion for idiots.

They are 100% right.


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