Friday, October 28, 2016

Election rhetoric alarms, divides
If you’re like many Americans, you’ve been alarmed with the divisive, “us vs. them” rhetoric employed by the presidential candidates, as well as the way that this rhetoric (and the campaign as a whole) have been covered by the media.

Along with Mara Williams from Kansas City Star and Professor Marie Paxton from Johnson County Community College (JCCC), I’ll be presenting a session on “Peace Journalism and the Rhetoric of the 2016 Election” on Saturday, Nov. 5 in Hudson Auditorium (inside the Nerman Museum) at JCCC. Our presentation is part of a two day peacebuilding conference titled “Peacebuilding: Redefining ‘Us vs. Them’” being held at Park University Nov. 4, and JCCC Nov. 5.
Peacebuilding: Redefining Us Vs. Them-Nov. 4-5

Unfortunately, there has been no shortage of “us vs. them” rhetoric from both candidates. Hillary Clinton’s most noteworthy entry in this category was the now infamous “basket of deplorables” comment.  “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” she said to applause and laughter. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.” (

Candidate Donald Trump has regularly employed “us vs. them” rhetoric. “We’re a divided nation, and each week it seems we’re getting more and more divided. . . . [We see] race riots on our streets on a monthly basis. Somebody said don’t call them race riots, but that’s what they are. They’re race riots. And it’s happening more and more.” (

In a recent speech, Michelle Obama said that most Americans are excluded from Trump’s vision for a better country. “It’s easy to dehumanize ‘them.’ To treat ‘them’ with contempt,’ Obama said. ‘Because you don’t know ‘them.’ You can’t even see ‘them.’ And maybe that’s why this candidate thinks certain immigrants are criminals instead of folks who work their fingers to the bone to give their kids a better life, to help build the greatest nation on Earth. Because he doesn’t really know them.” (

In addition, critics have observed that Trump’s rhetoric has divided Americans along gender and religious lines as well. Regarding Trump’s Islamophobia, Amanda Taub noted in the New York Times, “Mr. Trump, knowingly or not, joined a long line of people who have justified harsh policies against a group by portraying its members, often in sexualized terms, as perilous to women. By using women to measure moral distance between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ such messages portray outsiders as not just different, but dangerous.” (

In our session, we’ll also discuss how news media have covered divisive rhetoric from both candidates, and whether journalists have engaged in creating a false equivalency—giving equal weight to rhetoric, misstatements, lies, and wrongdoing by both candidates. In the New York Times in September, Nicolas Kristof discussed this issue, asking the fundamental question, “Is it journalistic malpractice to quote each side and leave it to readers to reach their own conclusions, even if one side seems to fabricate facts or make ludicrous comments?” 

In his column, Kristof cites PolitiFact statistics that show Clinton lying 13% of the time, and Trump lying 53% of the time. Given this, is it fair for news media to present similarly numbered and weighted articles showing that both candidates lie? Likewise, Kristof noted that there no equivalency between the work of the Clinton Foundation compared to the Trump Foundation, or between accusations leveled against the Clinton Foundation versus actual violations of the law by the Trump Foundation.

At our presentation, we’ll also discuss the “us vs. them” divisiveness of the gender rhetoric emanating from the presidential race, and how that should be portrayed by the media. I’ll use this fact to get our discussion started: In the week following the release of the “Access Hollywood” video (‘grab them by the p***y’), there was seven times more coverage of Trump’s sex scandals on the network evening news programs than of Clinton’s Wikileaks emails. ( Does this reflect balanced coverage, or an exploitation of gender turmoil?

This rhetoric, and the way it’s been covered, cry out for a peace journalism approach. Specifically, journalists would be well served to present inflammatory and divisive comments by the candidates in a more thoughtful manner. Coverage should offer analysis and context of such comments while unflinchingly calling out racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc. In addition, reporters should reject the “us vs. them” narrative, and instead press candidates to address issues that impact voters from disparate racial, ethnic, and economic boundaries. Peace Journalism would address issues that bring communities together.

I’m looking forward to a lively discussion on Nov. 5, and the day before from 1 to 4pm at Park University’s underground PDL center. For more information on the peacebuilding conference, and to register for free lunch on Nov. 5, go to:

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