What our use — and overuse — of language reveals about us
November 29, 2017 Updated: November 30, 2017 10:19am
On Monday, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney entered the “embattled” Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as it was described in a Wall Street Journal headline, armed only with a supply of donuts.
Somehow, Mulvaney made it out of the metaphorical war zone alive. But he’s far from the only one to find himself the subject of the bellicose buzzword in recent news stories. These days, the word “embattled” punctuates headlines like so many bugle blasts. It has lanced elected officials, business leaders and companies, not to mention entire industries and even regions.
Few people have been more embattled over the past year than Uber founder Travis Kalanick. A Google search for “embattled CEO” produces a wall of posts — almost all about the former head of the scandal-mired ride-hailing company. In June, Slate commented on Kalanick’s near-constant state of embattlement:
People love to describe him as “embattled.” There have been plenty of folks throughout history who were far more embattled than he (the Biblical Abraham, Napoleon, victims of sexual harassment, to name a few). But still, if you look at the past week, you will see that it was quite an embattled one for him.
On June 13, Kalanick announced he would be taking a break from the company. Would this make him any less embattled? Fat chance. “Uber’s embattled CEO, Travis Kalanick, is taking an indefinite leave of absence,” read Vox’s headline.
Kalanick isn’t the only one to buckle under the weight of the word, though.
In March, “embattled bankers” embraced President Trump’s call for financial deregulation (and found themselves “suddenly feeling emboldened,” according to the Washington Post). But Trump himself has been “embattled” almost since the day he took office. So has nearly everyone who works for him — or did, until they became too embattled. The casualties of embattlement include former press secretary Sean Spicer, chief strategist Stephen Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus, national security adviser Michael Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (Short-lived communications director Anthony Scaramucci seems not to have occupied office long enough to earn the moniker.)
Still, embattlement implies, well, a battle. So what are all these embattled people up against? The question is particularly murky for Trump, the Washington Post suggests in “Donald Trump: An embattled president … without a battle.” When Trump’s approval rating slipped to 35 percent in March, the Post noted that he was “the first president on record to go that low without it owing to one of three things: war, Watergate or economic strife.”
If the battle lines are hard to draw, then why does “embattled” suddenly seem to be hurling itself into every other headline? For one thing, drawing on militaristic hyperbole is a way to inject drama into otherwise mundane stories. A “troubled” or “struggling” leader doesn’t carry quite the same weight, says the editor Roy Peter Clark, who writes about language for the Poynter Institute, an organization that teaches journalistic ethics and practices.
Last year, Clark observed that news writers were overusing another militaristic cliché: “firestorm.” In an essay, he called it an example of “unmitigated hyperbole as a way of heating up coverage. It’s the journalist or commentator as carnival barker: ‘Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and watch the amazing firestorm of controversy … ‘”
Today he sees fewer “firestorms” but more “embattled” people — and the fact that both words derive from war matters, he said. The word itself is medieval, derived from Middle English and first recorded in the 14th century, when hordes of Europeans were, quite literally, embattled.
“If you think of yourself as being embattled, you have to imagine that there’s an army of people out to get you, and that you are a combatant on one side or another,” Clark explained. “That kind of metaphorical language is a lens through which we see the world. The problem is that when we think of the world that democracy creates, we talk about a civil society, and that’s a completely different set of metaphors. What does it mean to be civil to another person? It means to treat them not as if they’re your enemy, but as if you had the ability to work out your differences.”
Using the language of hyperbolic violence fuels division and intolerance, said Rice English Professor Terrence Doody.
“What I’ve been noticing is that people now do not grant any tolerance to opposing views. You don’t say, ‘I can understand how you see things, but I don’t view it that way,'” he said. “It’s ‘You’re evil and I hate you.’ If you use that level of hyperbole, there’s no chance of reconciliation.”
This is a new development in American rhetoric, Doody believes. Even at other divisive moments in our nation’s history, the language was never so extreme. Consider the Civil Rights movement, he says.
“If you listen to Martin Luther King’s speeches, they have a wonderful churchly rhetoric. They’re not violent, they’re very traditional, very calm,” he said.
To create a more civil society, we need people who use language publicly — people like journalists, business leaders and politicians — to start a backlash against violent metaphors, Doody said.
“We’d have to call it something other than a backlash, though,” he added. “That’s a violent term, too.”
But what about the targets of terms like “embattled”? Once labeled as such, can they ever become un-embattled again? After all, the word tends to describe politicians and executives just before they move on to descriptors like “ousted,” “fired,” and “former.”
That doesn’t stop embattled leaders from aiming for other adjectives, of course. Take United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, whose reputation came under siege after a United passenger was dragged from his seat in April. Munoz, who won a PR award just weeks before fumbling his apology for the scandal, has tried to battle his way back into the public’s good graces.
His best hope for recovery was to increase customer satisfaction by improving service quality — in part by making employees happier, Vikas Mittal, a marketing professor at Rice Business, said at the time.
“To truly turn United around, Munoz, the board, and all United management and workers need to reschool themselves on the basics of customer satisfaction,” Mittal wrote. It seems Munoz has taken that advice to heart — and, at least to some degree, succeeded.
After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Munoz made headlines with a more civility-minded purpose: his promise of a generous donation in matching storm relief funds. Nowhere was he described as “embattled.” A Fox News story used no adjectives at all, in fact, creating a blank canvas that must have looked, to the once-embattled eye, like a white flag.
Jennifer Latson is an editor at Rice Business Wisdom and the author of The Boy Who Loved Too Much, a nonfiction book about a rare disorder called Williams syndrome. This story originally appeared on Houston Public Media.