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The Ripple Effect of Divisive Political Language

By Dr. Robyn Short, CEO of Workplace Peace Institute



Whoever said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” must have been on the receiving end of a very kind-speaking stick thrower. Words matter. Words designed to tear individuals and societies from one another through fear can cause social damage that takes far longer to repair than any broken bone.

Words are powerful seedlings for future thought and behavior, inspiring action in one’s self and others.

Words are powerful seedlings for future thought and behavior, inspiring action in one’s self and others. The Chilean entrepreneur and politician Fernando Flores poignantly explains the power of language: “We human beings belong to language. In language, we love and hate, we admire and despise. We interpret our crises as individual and social. We suffer, and exalt and despair. In language, we receive the gift of being human. All the feeling, the thinking, the action, and the things of this world as we know it are given to us in language.”

Flores is correct that we do receive the gift of being human in our use of language, but what we also experience is the devastating ripple effect that can occur when we use language to vilify and dehumanize one another — when we use language as a weapon of destruction rather than a vehicle for collaboration and interest-based problem-solving.

Decades of violent and degrading language in political discourse has resulted in a political climate in which riots are routine, hate groups actively participate in campaign rallies, discrimination and threats against religious groups are constant and even celebrated, and the degradation of women is fodder for Twitter feeds and used as a campaigning weapon by super PACs.

Politics in the United States have long been a shameful parade of fear-mongering and hate speech (speech that attacks a person or group of people on the basis of gender, ethnic origin, religion, race, disability or sexual orientation) and with each new political season, especially presidential campaign season, the fear-mongering and hate language has become increasingly more dangerous. Decades of violent and degrading language in political discourse has resulted in a political climate in which riots are routine, hate groups actively participate in campaign rallies, discrimination and threats against religious groups are constant and even celebrated, and the degradation of women is fodder for Twitter feeds and used as a campaigning weapon by super PACs.

The use of language as a tool for dehumanizing, vilifying and separating the people of this nation is as bipartisan as patriotism. Democrats and Republicans alike use divisive language that labels individuals and groups as “the other.” And by doing so, they indirectly foster a culture in which harmful or negative actions against “the other” is permissible, and to some people, even morally correct. George Orwell wisely wrote: “… if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” And ultimately, corrupt language leads to corrupt behavior.


Political rhetoric has become so divisive because we, the constituents, reward politicians for it. We reward them by sharing their words in media, by contributing to it in the comment sections of news articles and social feeds, by retweeting them, by quoting them, and by cheering them on in campaign rallies and town hall meetings. We give life to their words. We take them and hurl them like bombs with no regard for the destruction of our shared humanity.


Without the unwavering support we offer politicians, they would change tactics. We are the monsters their words seek to feed. The more hate language we greedily consume, the more hate language they generously feed us. Together we are cannibalizing our humanity, and we are so busy blaming the other party that we don’t even recognize the role we play in the process.


Language has the power to unite us or divide us. In her 1993 novel The Robber Bride Margaret Atwood wrote, “War is what happens when language fails us.” Peace is what happens when we use language to unite us. The choice is ours.


An international speaker, peace-building trainer and mediator with expertise in restorative justice and transformative mediation models, Dr. Robyn Short works with individuals, corporations, and nonprofit organizations in discovering the root causes of their conflicts, so they may transform their relationships and create new and productive paths forward individually and as teams. In addition to her mediation and conflict training practice through Workplace Peace Institute, Dr. Short is an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University in the Master of Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution program, the Master of Leadership and Negotiation at Bay Path University, and Lipscomb University's Master in Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution. She has guest lectured at Pepperdine University and Creighton University. Dr. Short has authored four books on peace building.

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