Frederick Schmidt: Public Discourse and The Language of Derision


The language of derision has become increasingly commonplace in public discourse. The labels, "stupid," "elitist," "racist," and their synonyms have become increasingly commonplace in public discourse.

Our political leaders use the language of derision to describe the people they lead when they fail to respond positively to their appeals. Political operatives use the language of derision in ads and promotions that provide cover for candidates who hope to benefit from that kind of language, but distance themselves from it at the same time. And voters are enlisted in using the language of derision in describing one another with increasing ease.

It is difficult to know whether the language of derision is more common in absolute terms, or whether modern media has simply provided it with a larger and more accessible platform.  But it is fair to say that it has become a common feature of public discourse.

Name-calling has its obvious attractions:

  • It is memorable and it can be used to label and stigmatize certain views.

  • It creates a sense of partisan belonging among those who use it.

  • It fuels a sense of moral and intellectual superiority.

  • And it makes it unnecessary to craft a sustained argument in defense of the views held by the people who use them.

What is overlooked are its corrosive effects:

  • The language of derision creates and deepens divides.

  • It short-circuits meaningful exchange on issues, impoverishing public discourse.

  • It leads to balkanization. Rendering future exchange, cooperation, and compromise impossible between groups.

  • And it feeds self-satisfaction with one's own beliefs that forecloses on learning and self-criticism.

At the heart of the language of derision is a profound spiritual malaise, fed by pride and by a narrowed sense of responsibility for those around us. It can never feed anything larger than partisanship and tribalism.

As long as we reward this kind of discourse and as long as we depend upon derision to score points, we can also be sure that the future will be scarred by it; and our common life will be shaped by power and nothing more.

From Frederick's blog at