English teachers across the nation just felt a chill run down their collective spines. On Monday, while appearing on Fox Business News, Donald Trump campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson said that “left-wing reporters literally beat Trump supporters into submission.” That’s right. We have to have another national conversation about the word "literally."
Sure, sure, there has been plenty of discussion on why using “literally” as an intensifier may not be completely acceptable, but at least has precedent. I’m even going to go out on a limb here and say that, if she is asked, Pierson will defend her statement with some explanation to that effect — no, she did not mean that there were actual beatings of Trump supporters by left-wing reporters.
But there’s something else more troubling going on here. This is the latest instance of the Trump campaign being casual with words and ideas. Most of the infractions come from The Donald himself — perhaps the grossest example of playing it fast-and-loose with words being his seeming suggestion that Second Amendment activists go out and shoot Hillary Clinton last week. What was most worrying for me about Trump’s statement wasn’t that I thought he actually wanted someone to go and shoot Clinton, but that one of his followers might not be so judicious in interpreting his words.
Similarly, I don’t believe Pierson is actually describing physical acts of violence being perpetrated by former journalism majors on Trump’s supporters. But what’s problematic is that I can easily envision some (or many) of Trump’s followers believing it’s real. And in an election where one side of the political discussion seems to be spinning farther and farther away from reason and rationality, getting loose and funky with the rhetoric is not only problematic — it could be dangerous.
Fortunately, the left-wing reporter thugs on Twitter were more than up to respond to Pierson’s charge.
The regularity of these kinds of gaffes is dispiriting, especially for someone who used to teach English composition. But what’s most exhausting is explaining to apologists why it matters. It’s not because we all should be expected to use language perfectly all the time — Lord knows I sure don’t — but we should be aware of the implications and ramifications of what we’re saying. Pierson’s misuse of “literally” is unfortunate, but forgivable. Implanting the image of reporters beating citizens into the minds of a voting demographic already high on anger, resentment, and frustration is just downright reckless. Which is exactly Trump’s style.
Image: Bustle/Caroline Wurtzel