By Justin Rossow
A battle is raging for the soul of America. And we are all losing.
One of my favorite movie quotes comes as Neo waits to see the Oracle, and a young boy is manipulating objects with his mind. “Do not try and bend the spoon,” he tells Neo, “that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth: there is no spoon.”
Not a fan of the classic 1999 movie, The Matrix? Then maybe you’ll recognize this quote from Hamlet’s conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Shakespeare’s classic 1599 play: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Both tortured protagonists are getting at a truth central to Cognitive Linguistics: the way we think (and therefore the way we talk) shapes how we experience the world around us. Look at the language we use to structure an experience, and you can evaluate the obstacles, opponents, allies, hoped-for outcomes, and options for action or reaction that we assume are present in any situation.
You can hear competing versions of reality in the way different people talked about the events of January 6, 2021, when American citizens descended on their own Capitol, and caused the evacuation of the halls of Congress.
These people were called “protestors” by some, “rioters” by other, and even “thugs” and “insurrectionists.” Each of those terms carries with it a different way of framing reality, of describing who these people are and what they are doing, and evaluating their actions according to different sets of criteria.
“Protestors” see some kind of injustice and are sticking up for the truth. “Rioters” have no such agenda; they are associated with unruly mobs and pointless destruction of property. “Thugs” don’t have loyalty to any particular group. As common criminals, they are prone to violence, often for gain, and usually are in the employ of someone smarter and more powerful. “Insurrectionists,” well, “insurrection” comes from the Latin for “rise up” and is typically a violent revolt against a governing authority.
The words you use to describe a group of people, good or bad, frame your emotional response as well as your logic as you respond to any given situation. A FOX News reporter who had been referring to these people as “peaceful protestors” evaluated their entry into the Capitol building accordingly: “This is a huge victory for these protestors. They have disrupted the system in an enormous way!”
But victories are only won in competitions and battles. Indeed, the events that led to the evacuation of the Capitol building were evaluated in terms of a competition or battle before, during, and after the events themselves. President Trump called on his supporters to “fight” for him, and the crowd that marched on the Capitol was heard chanting, “Fight for Trump!” When the Senate returned to session, Vice President Pence spoke briefly. In his 208-word speech, he used the word “defend” three times, “win” three times, and “protect” once. Pence clearly framed the events as a struggle or battle between two sides: “To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win.”
While the Vice President did refer to the Capitol building as “these hallowed halls,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer pushed the religious framing of the day’s events further. “This temple to democracy was desecrated,” he said.
A temple is a holy building, set aside for the worship and service of a deity. That makes Democracy a kind of god for Americans to worship and serve. Temples can be desecrated—profaned, or made less holy—by people or things that are not holy, people or things contrary to the commands and character of the god who dwells in the temple.
Schumer is framing the day’s events not only as a competition or battle or struggle, but as a struggle between those who are holy in obeying and serving the deity Democracy and those who profane the temple of this American god by their impure, unclean, and unholy behavior.
Schumer went on to say: “I want to be very clear: Those who performed these reprehensible acts cannot be called protesters – no, these were rioters and insurrectionists, goons and thugs, domestic terrorists. They do not represent America. They were a few thousand violent extremists who tried to take over the Capitol building and attack our democracy.”
Schumer is aware that labels matter. In the way he frames the events, there are only two sides—an US and a THEM—and the two sides are in a holy conflict, with only one possible winner, and by definition, only one side who is right and righteous.
It’s not surprising the President Trump agrees with Schumer’s worldview: this is a holy war with only one right side. (Of course, the President disagrees with Schumer on which side is holy and righteous).
“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” Trump said in a post later deleted by Twitter for violating its rules. “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
It doesn’t matter that every claim of widespread election fraud has been debunked. It doesn’t matter if the conspiracy theories Trump promotes have little or no basis in reality. He can even call his imaginary victory a “landslide,” and people think, feel, reason, and experience it that way; there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
Adding “sacred” to “landslide election victory” and referring to his supporters as “great patriots” helps them feel, think, and act as if they had been “unfairly treated for so long.” So Schumer and Trump agree: this is a zero sum equation, a battle with only one winner and one loser, a holy war fought for the soul of America.
Of course, it’s striking that this holy war pits the President of the United States against the joint Houses of Congress. But what’s even more alarming is that both “sides” concur: our holy, sacred democracy is under attack and must be defended. But when our leaders frame ideological differences (and let’s be honest—different views of fact and reality) as a battle with two sides and only one winner, we the people are the losers. We cannot sustain a war where both sides are fighting for democracy.
Long after President-Elect Biden takes office and the windows of the Capitol are replaced and the dead are mourned and the trespassers are prosecuted—long after January 6, 2021 we will still have widely diverging views on how to move forward in this country. In fact, we will have way more than only two sides to every issue, and all of them have a right to want to protect America and this experiment of democracy.
The only way not to lose the battle for the soul of America is not to fight it. Give up on the holy war with only one winner and only one loser. Move toward the difficult work of mutual understanding in the face of differing world views.
As Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.) said on the Senate floor after the protestors/rioters/thugs had been cleared from the chamber: “We’re the United States of America. We disagree on a lot of things, and we have a lot of spirited debate in this room. But we talk it out, and we honor each other — even in our disagreement. That person, that person, that person is not my enemy. That’s my fellow American.”
As a nation, we need to find a way to live out those words not only with senators from different political parties, but with people who were so sure a “sacred landslide election victory” was being “stolen” from them unfairly, that they were willing to “fight” and take their protest into the Capitol building, as if disrupting the system of government were some kind of “victory” in a war to preserve democracy.
Our only way forward is to reject the zero sum, holy war thinking outright, and go from there. When it comes to the “battle” for our soul of America, we all need a common battle cry: “There is no spoon!”
I used the following websites to get direct quotes for the analysis in this article: https://tulsaworld.com/news/national/govt-and-politics/watch-now-lankford-decries-rioters-and-thugs-in-second-speech-from-senate-floor-wednesday-after/article_e29a7d6a-50ee-11eb-8cd6-672258e9803e.html, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/06/us/politics/twitter-deletes-trump-tweet.html, https://www.usnews.com/news/elections/articles/2021-01-06/read-chuck-schumers-statement-to-the-senate-on-the-storming-of-the-capitol, and https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/mike-pence-senate-speech-transcript-after-capitol-building-riots. The featured image is an AP photo.