An act of terror and an act of hate.
That is what President Obama called the Sunday morning shooting at the Orlando gay nightclub, Pulse. This short phrase was also later echoed by presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Out of context, the phrase is rather benign, at least in a political sense. But in context the phrase held massive import.
The shooting took place at a gay nightclub, but it was carried out by an American Muslim man who pledged allegiance to ISIS. Was this an act of terrorism or a hate crime? That was the question for many hours Sunday morning being debated on Twitter, Facebook, and news programs around the country. Of course, these need not be mutually exclusive categories, but we do not suffer nuance well on the best of days. And the 2016 presidential election season has certainly not been our best days.
For good or ill, we cannot escape the politics of anything these days, nor do we try all that hard to. Indeed, I had multiple conversations on Sunday about which narrative would “win.” Will this be made to be about ISIS and “Radical Islamic Terrorism” or about attacks on the LGBT community or about gun control and the need for an assault weapons ban? Even before the political lines were drawn, we knew where they would be etched. They are still fresh from the last battle. Democrats and Republicans, Liberals and Conservatives looked for pieces of information to support their narrative.
“His father said he became enraged after seeing two men kiss in public in Miami a few months ago; this is definitely about LGBT issues.”
“He pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader; this is definitely about terrorism and bad Muslims.”
So, when President Obama took to the podium and called this “an act of terror and an act of hate,” he signaled his desire to hold up the narratives or terrorism and hate crime together. But what we will see over the next few weeks is not just one narrative winning as motivations get ascribed by various authority figures (President Obama, the FBI, Donald Trump, Senate Republicans, Hillary Clinton, etc.). We will also witness the struggle over The Narrative in real time.
Lest you think words don’t matter and I am just wasting my time talking about arbitrary narratives, consider that Donald Trump called on President Obama to resign because he did not use two words that Trump says he should have used: Radical Islam. If words did not matter, would the presumptive Republican nominee for President be calling for a sitting President to resign for not saying two simple words?
We have an insatiable desire for classification, for through it we create the world. Power, true power, is held not by those with the largest bank accounts or the strongest military, but by those who give us the words with which to view the world.
If Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama win the narratival battle, we will see a shift in conversations about which bathroom people can use and a renewed push for an assault weapons ban. If Donald Trump should win this battle, our national conversation will once again be about banning Muslims and the cries for even more military action in the Middle East will grow louder. Winning this narratival battle means more than just winning power in the American political system. It will also determine who we will be as a country, whether we will allow nativism and xenophobia to spread, whether we will justify our own acts of terror and hate in the name of justice and revenge.
This is more than a game of semantics, for classification is a political act with very real consequences. And the battle cry of this war of words is simple: Win the Words, Change the World.
Image by Gage Skidmore