Trigger Words are Killing American Debate

When we think of violence we usually associate it with the destructive actions like stripping our law enforcement budgets of badly needed funds or allowing repeat offenders back out on the streets to commit more crimes. Images of pedophiles or hopped-up perpetrators accosting innocent people just going about their business pop into our heads along with the mug shots of crazy people with guns who have entered our schools and murdered our children.

Trigger words don’t even make it to our 'B' list of violent behavior, but that was before a few of our government agencies entered our private space and started poking their bureaucratic and highly ideological noses into our social-media postings, filming our remarks at school board meetings, infiltrating our organizations, and colluding with Big Tech to ferret out all the 'subversives' who could theoretically do the rest of us irreparable harm.

No one with a working set of eyes and ears who has followed the news can deny that America the beautiful has turned into America cum East Germany of the 60s, led by left-wing zealots who view conservatism, fiscal responsibility, and adherence to the Constitution as a clear and present danger to their march towards the brave new world of collectivism. Granted, that's a mouthful and a big accusation. Some would even say that it is conspiratorial and be pleased to sic the feds on this writer for 'misinformation mongering' at the very least. And judging by the government's overreach and persecution and, in some cases, incarceration of innocent January 6th citizens who did nothing illegal that day but simply gathered on the 'people's land' to protest an election they felt was rigged, (just 20,000 plus votes in three states gave Joe Biden the win) the triggers were -- and are -- being pulled by the Department of Justice many of whose officials see it as their sworn duty to ferret out all those domestic insurgents who engaged in an effort to 'bring down democracy' and replace it with tyranny.

There are plenty of 'trigger words' in those last two sentences and they can be combined and recombined to form the narrative for the new crusade to rid America of dissenters. The current abuse of power by our government is eerily reminiscent of the Nixon and then later Johnson administrations' efforts to shut down the Vietnam War protests in the late sixties/early seventies with innuendo-filled trigger words and accusations. Bull Connor would be proud to be a member of their team.

It's a cliché to say that words matter, but just because it's a cliché doesn’t make it a lie. Free speech is only free when those holding the power over it refrain from attacking those who exercise it.

We are now a semantically bifurcated nation where each side has a number of 'approved' words and phrases that serve to unify the party faithful and mobilize them to action -- or cause them to stop reading or stop listening. These words have crept into our national lexicon and have now become acceptable red flags, some would say 'dog whistles' calling the political hounds to the hunt. A trigger word case in point was a recent mailing from NPR's ombudsman (a term they have discarded in favor of the more gender neutral 'public editor' or PE). Their PE sent out a missive on the abortion debate, and in the second paragraph alienated (I'm assuming) a large swath of its more conservative readers with the phrase: "For many people who have been pregnant…" The use of people instead of women is one of the new trigger words that have hit both groups -- liberals and conservatives -- evenly. Liberals will continue reading the piece knowing that the writer and PE Kelly McBride are speaking to them while conservatives will put down the page and stop reading, fully aware that NPR is not speaking to them, but addressing its remarks to its larger 'woke' audience.

Other such words have become so intimately embedded in our vocabulary that they are now 'mainstream trigger words' and function as verbal signal flares to unify their respective bases and separate them from their opposition. They become memes, talking points, and code for calls to action.

Some of the more popular words and phrases used by the Left include: equity, social or restorative justice, binary, climate change, election denier, right-wing domestic extremist, a woman's right to choose and a bevy of gender-specific terms too numerous to mention. Republicans, too, have their own terminology, designed to bind their flock together such as: equality (instead of equity), man and woman (instead of genderless appellations), family, law-abiding, criminals and perpetrators, strict constructionism (referring to the Constitution) and free and fair elections. No self-respecting arch Liberal would be caught dead using the Right's trigger words or vice-versa.

Triggers were meant to be pulled.

As we approach the one-month deadline before our mid-term election we will, undoubtedly, hear many more such trigger words adorning campaign ads and spoken from the lips of the über woke, themselves. While triggers exist for one purpose only -- to be pulled -- we must be wary of in whose hands trigger words rest and then we must actively work to prevent them from becoming the demise of sincere and honest debate… or worse.

Stephan Helgesen is a retired career U.S. diplomat who lived and worked in 30 countries for 25 years during the Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, and G.W. Bush Administrations. He is the author of twelve books, six of which are on American politics and has written over 1,300 articles on politics, economics and social trends. He operates a political news story aggregator website, He can be reached at:

Image: Asad Amjad ChangEzi

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