The escalating invective between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un serves as a fresh reminder of why name-calling isn’t such a great idea – and certainly not a strategy.
Name-calling is at best a boomerang sport. You call someone a name and they respond by insulting you back – rocket man on a suicide ride fetches mentally deranged dotard. Apart from a fleeting reference to Elton John and a word requiring a dictionary dive, not much is accomplished. And the space to find middle ground is reduced.
At worst, name-calling can exacerbate an already explosive situation. When two nations with nuclear capabilities engage in name-calling, the explosions could be huge. Kim said Trump’s insults amount to a declaration of war, as US warplanes flew closer to the North Korea and Kim threatened to shoot them down. Chances sharply increased for an accidental stumble into actual war.
Trump and Kim aren’t the first to resort to name-calling, but they are egregious examples of the technique taken to an extreme. Professional wrestlers hurl insults to whip up the crowd, but they have scripts. Trump and Kim appear to be trading shots totally off script.
Jimmy Kimmel has generated a lot of buzz by calling Senator Bill Cassidy, co-author of the latest GOP plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, a “liar.” The comedian said Cassidy promised only to support a health care bill that would pass the “Jimmy Kimmel test,” which meant preserving a requirement in current law that no one can be denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition. Kimmel says the Cassidy-Graham bill fails to pass the test the Louisiana senator promised.
Did Kimmel’s three-night monologue accusing Cassidy of lying turn the tide on the Cassidy-Graham bill? Unlikely. Arizona Senator John McCain, who has declared his opposition, seemed more impressed by the array of health care organizations opposing the bill, the lack of hearings and the failure of the Senate to pursue a bipartisan solution.
Trump reflects another problem with personal invective. He calls people “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted” or “Little Marco,” but is offended when a journalist calls him a “white supremacist.” You get what you give in the name-calling game. Name-calling has the effect of turning a disagreement into a street fight.
That hasn’t stopped Trump who over the weekend went on a Twitter tirade against NFL players who kneel during the national anthem before games. He dared NFL owners to fire kneeling players, calling them SOBs, but instead more players and some entire teams did the opposite. Another reality of name-calling – it ticks off the people you call names and increases the odds they will defy you. And, name-calling appears to be habit-forming.
Maybe name-calling is just a regressive form of argumentation. It is what young kids do in schoolyards when they are frustrated and don’t know how else to vent. Or what bullies do to their victims to make themselves feel bigger than they really are. But bullies sometimes are upstaged by those they bully – see Teresa Kaepernick’s response.
There certainly is a time for emotional expression. Tragedies. Natural disasters. Shootings. Even then, strong words usually aren’t framed as insults.
Calling people names is viewed by some as a form of branding. Don Rickles insulted people to their face after they bought tickets to see him. But Rickles was a comic and name-calling was his shtick. He made fun of how people looked or dressed, but he didn’t threaten to burn down anyone’s house.
For those tempted to name-call, the unfiltered immediacy of Twitter is a perfect bedside companion. Unlike Rickles who risked getting a drink splashed in his face, a name-caller on Twitter can verbally assault someone in relative isolation, then go brush his teeth. Hurling insults online is a lot like throwing rocks from a glass house – without any glass to shatter when someone throws a rock back at you. But it also can generate a lot more rock throwers.
Calling out people may be a sophisticated, if misplaced tactic to divert and district attention such as a looming major legislative failure or the tightening screws of investigations. Even if the insults manage to distract, they also detract from what else you say or want to say, such as assurances to thousands of people who lost their homes, possessions and livelihoods in two huge hurricanes. Because name-calling is all-consuming, it doesn’t leave much air on the room for anything else.
For anyone who thinks about it, name-calling is a not strategy, brand-builder or effective communications technique. You don’t control the back and forth flow of insults; they control you. Your priorities are buried under the debris of angry, hateful words. Your options shrink. Your goodwill, even among supporters, evaporates.
If someone calls you a name, stop before responding in kind. If your ire is up and you are tempted to name-call, take a breather. You can assuredly come up with a better approach because name-calling is pretty close to the worst-case scenario.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.