Cass R. Sunstein: Trump's nasty nicknames spread like a virus
Summary: There are two dangers here. The first involves character assassination and its effects in business, elections and ordinary life. If high-level officials are using that strategy, and if it is working, others will do the same thing. Social norms can unravel in a hurry.
In an interview last week with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, CNBC host Jim Cramer addressed her as "Crazy Nancy." Here's the transcript:
Jim Cramer: What deal can we have, Crazy Nancy? I'm sorry, that was the President. I have such reverence for the office. I would never use that term, but it is ...
Speaker Pelosi: But you just did.
But you just did.
Cramer: Oh, come on, you know what I mean. You know what I mean.
Pelosi: I know what you meant, I do.
Cramer later apologized, saying, "I made a very stupid mistake." President Donald Trump tweeted back: "Jim, you didn't make a mistake. It's true, and that's why you said it. No pandering!"
Taken by itself, the incident is merely revolting. But it reveals some larger truths. Let's assume what is probably the case: Cramer had no conscious intention of addressing the speaker of the House as "Crazy Nancy." But Trump's ugly nickname stuck in his head, so that when he saw her face, that's what came to mind. He used the term automatically and without reflection.
There is a clue here about the immense power of ugly nicknames —- and also of deception and lies. With respect to statements of fact, human beings show "truth bias": people tend to think that what they hear is truthful, even when explicitly told that it is false, or otherwise have excellent reason not to believe it.
Indeed, research shows that a real-time disclosure that a statement is untrue may not be enough to stop us from remembering it as true, and potentially from repeating it later, with conviction. It's hard to get some things out of our heads, even if they are accompanied with strong disclaimers. (Social media platforms, are you paying attention?)
It follows that if you are told that some public official is a crazy or a crook, you might continue to believe that in some part of your mind — even if you know, on reflection, that she's perfectly sane and entirely honest.
Ugly nicknames often contain falsehoods. But whether or not they do, they can define their objects. High school students know this, and so does Trump.
There are two dangers here. The first involves character assassination and its effects in business, elections and ordinary life. If high-level officials are using that strategy, and if it is working, others will do the same thing. Social norms can unravel in a hurry.
Ugliness feeds on itself. Trump has been unleashing a lot of it, with devastating effects on individuals and institutions.
The second danger involves the risks of literal violence. If people are described as crooked or crazy, as criminals or as traitors, or as guilty of sedition, they become dehumanized, and they are more likely to be hurt.
There are two remedies. The first is to call out savagery for what it is. Cramer's way of addressing the House speaker was savage, and his apology was not a matter of pandering.
The second is to model something different, which is civility and grace. Abraham Lincoln gets the final words:
"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School. From 2009-2012, he served as administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.