When language fails

August 9, 2009 | By | 5 Replies More

“War is what happens when language fails.”   –Margaret Atwood

Yesterday the New York Times ran a piece by Sheryl Gay Stolberg about the recent disruptions to town hall meetings that were convened to discuss health care reform. Stolberg points out that this sort of “activism” subverts the democratic process. It is aimed not at furthering, but at overwhelming public discourse:

The traditional town hall meeting, a staple of Congressional constituent relations, had been hijacked, overrun by sophisticated social-networking campaigns — those on the right protesting so loudly as to shut down public discourse and those on the left springing into action to shut down the shutdowns.

(I once tried to discuss the first Gulf War with a dittohead, back in the day.  He shouted at me for fifteen minutes; every now and then he yelled, “What do you say to that?”  I couldn’t say anything, it would’ve been like shouting into a full force gale.)

Meanwhile, Snopes has an email making the rounds that claims that Obama’s proposed health care reform bill mandates “euthanasia counseling” for seniors.  Another pleads, “Please do not let Obama sign senior death warrants.” 

Health care reform is just one front on a larger American skirmish, of course;  one that’s been going on for most of my lifetime.  I was a child of the 60’s, when social upheaval was just as marked as it is now.

But in the 60’s, the country was in good economic shape.  And the outrage then really did originate at the grassroots.  Today, tough economic times and the specter of America’s gradually waning superpowers have intensified the culture wars.  So have the right-wing media, which love to whip up hysteria, religious fanaticism, and paranoia–anything to further their political agenda.   The town hall shoutfests, like the teabag protests earlier this year, may be Astroturf, but they tap into real, and fairly widespread, fear and rage.

Lies, misinformation, and attempts to obstruct civil discourse make good-faith dialogue difficult if not impossible.  How far will they go, and how do we overcome them?  And if we can’t,  could the U.S. descend into another civil war?  (Surely not.  That’s  my imagination working overtime, fueled by my own paranoia.  Isn’t it?)


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Category: American Culture, Current Events, Politics, War

About the Author ()

Stacy Kennedy was born and raised in Southern California and currently lives in Los Angeles, two blocks from MacArthur Park. She is a secular humanist, a skeptic, and an atheist with pantheistic sympathies. She tells people that she is a writer.

Comments (5)

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  1. Dave Jenkins says:


    I am not sure the economy was in better shape "in the 60's"– it was smaller, capital was concentrated in fewer hands, and inflation was a nagging worry. But the "60's" seems to have little to do with the rest of your paragraph about grassroots concerns, unless you're just trying to put things in some sort of baby-boomer lens (which is counterproductive, IMHO).

    I would postulate that the astroturfing of town-hall meetings is not so much a "hijacking" as it is a "spamming": the town hall format is just outdated and unable to support the level of communication, data, and information that flows so freely now. Much like email (a crude communications format invented in 1971) suffers from overload with spam, promotions, and other crap, the town hall suffers under the weight of organized groups.

    To me, this is a format problem, not a political problem. The town hall could be revamped into imaginative seating arrangements, organizational games, and creative brainstorming techniques. Right now, with one senator sitting on a stage and having people yell at her is clearly the wrong relationship: one-to-many doesn't work anymore. The relationship must become many-to-many. The trick is to figure out how to fascilitate that many-to-many relationship and keep things "civil". It could be as simple as giving each person a chit or poker chips when they come into the town hall, and ask them to place their "bets" on opinions or issues they want to back. They could also give their chits to a 'group leader', and the person with the most chits gets the microphone.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Dave: I agree entirely with your "spam" comparison. We can't keep empowering those who haven't done their homework, those who don't want to be informed and those who want to hinder conversation when the community gets together to talk. This is a deep and compelling topic, in my mind.

  2. Stacy Kennedy says:


    "To me, this is a format problem, not a political problem."

    I disagree. This is an orchestrated attempt to stifle rational discussion.


    You cannot have a "civil" discussion with people who are determined to shout you down. And people who have been told (by mainstream political figures) that their political opponents want to kill them (or their aging parents, or their babies) are not going to be interested in taking a chit and playing by the rules.

  3. Dave says:


    Sorry for not clarifying my remarks. I am not arguing that it is not an orchestrated attempt– my point is that the format itself is susceptible to being hijacked by an organized attempt, just like email can be hijacked by spammers (who are very organized and very intent).

    Take "left" or "right", "blue" or "red", out of it for a second, and the problem will remain: fringe element zealots can yell and scream and upset the "civic order" of the process, causing the process (town halls) to fail. Because the process is an attempt to create something new, then it follows that if one upsets the process, then the new creation will also fail, and the political owners of that will also fail.

    So yes– it is political in that it is adversarial positions over policies. But the flaw (being exploited by republicans currently) is in the format and process, not in the policy.

    A few years from now, the shoe will be on the other foot. If the same Town Hall format persists, the same yelling and screaming will happen, just with different people.

  4. Alison says:

    Unfortunately, people whose opinions are least informed tend to hold them more strongly and express them more loudly (and frequently!) The thing to do, IMHO, is to insist on civility. Inform attendees in advance that they may sign up on a list to speak, and will be given X number of minutes to make their statement or ask their question. The list will be limited in number, the speaker will not have a time limit on his/her response, and the final speaker will be determined by the pre-set time limit of the meeting. Disruptive persons will be given a single warning, then removed by security.

    This shout-down tactic works because we allow it. Go down to the local level, and you'll see how the above system works – the complainers and crackpots know that if they want their say, they have to play by the rules. They'd rather have five minutes at the microphone than nothing at all. The rules allow anyone who arrives on time to have as much of a voice as anyone else, and enforce civil behavior. Everyone in attendance knows in advance how it works, and behaves accordingly.

    In a larger venue, of course, things will have to work differently, but it can be done. Groups that share an opinion or agenda will have to elect speakers to represent them, and behave well lest their representative be ejected from the meeting along with the rest of them. Requests to speak will have to be made well in advance of the meeting, and it might be necessary to require attendees to register in advance to control the crowd. Security will need to be bigger – more personnel spread out enough to cover, but close enough to round up a disruptive group.

    We know that sheeple are being taught how to be disruptive, and encouraged to do so by certain special interests. If they're allowed to do it, that's almost like condoning it. The way to stop it has to be proactive and pre-emptive. I happened to catch the moment in whatever baseball game hubby was watching when a spectator poured his beer on the head of one of the players. Not only did security hustle him out of the stadium in record time, but even the crowd let him know he was out of line. He did something unacceptable, and paid the consequences. In the future he and other fans will not do that because they know it won't be tolerated, and that's the way it should be with these people who want to keep the country from hearing anything other than what they want it to hear.

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