In an Op-Ed published on April 1, Michelle Goldberg writes about the ongoing fight between Disney and the Right over the recent passage of Florida’s H.B. 1557 – the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill. After weeks of protesting, Disney’s choice to side with the opinion of its workers and speak out in opposition to the bill has generated serious animus from proponents of the bill. Right-wing activists have taken the initiative to begin an onslaught of attacks against Disney, including against director of “The Proud Family” cartoon series, which director Latoya Raveneau has argued is an example of Disney’s commitment to uplifting queer voices. The attacks against Raveneau and Disney from the Right that claim the content is “grooming children with radical sexual propaganda” demonstrate rhetorical extremes that are indicative of demagoguery instead of intellectual criticism.
The LGBTQIA+ community has always seen their human rights debated in American politics, to the point that a politician’s stance on queer issues is as easy to identify as their stance on anything from taxes to environmental conservation. And quite frankly, with the last sodomy laws being repealed in 2003 and gay marriage only being legalized in 2015 with the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, governmental support for queer rights is a relatively new phenomenon in U.S. history. However, the recent debate over H.B. 1557, otherwise known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, have brought the idea of dangerous rhetoric once again to the forefront of the political arena. As the debate over this bill has heated up, the choice by many right-wing proponents of the bill to stoop to blatant homophobia has created a hostile discourse antithetical to healthy democratic debate. Further, the increasing mainstream acceptance of this discourse signifies an increase in the prevalence of far-right ideology; or at a minimum this acceptance signifies an increased comfortability for those associated with the far-right to be vocal about their views.
Amy Gutmann argues that whether it is believed or not, extreme rhetoric may be employed in the political arena because “inflammatory remarks make for good copy” (Gutmann, 2007, p. 71). Additionally, this extreme rhetoric appeals to the public because it simplified the often complicated and nuanced issues on the political agenda into moral finites of good and bad. Take, for example, a tweet by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s press Secretary, who wrote that the bill could be considered an “Anti-Grooming Bill”. The term grooming as defined by the Rape, Abuse Incest National Network refers to “manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught” (Hesse, 2022). Invoking this sort of extreme rhetoric immediately sways public opinion, at least for supporters of DeSantis and this bill, further to the right. When this sort of logical fallacy is used, it becomes impossible for critical debate to occur. No moral person would want children to be groomed by their teachers, and so those influenced by the rhetoric of this sort of tweet cease to be operating in an environment suitable for democratic debate.
This sort of rhetoric is what Jennifer Mercieca refers to as weaponized communication, which serves a rhetorician “as an aggressive means to gain compliance and avoid accountability” (Mercieca, 2019, p. 266). This is an important characteristic of the behavior of dangerous demagogues, who Mercieca argues employ tactics such as disinformation and distorting meaning to influence the public and avoid personal accountability. As Goldberg explains in her Opinion, conservative activists like Christopher Rufo are tapping into this rhetoric to “build the narrative, much in the same way as critical race theory,” (Goldberg, 2022). Similar to the frenzy that used a distorted fear of academic theory to create support for legislation that significantly limits discussions of race in the classroom, the rhetoric of Rufo and other proponents of H.B. 1557 has employed the fear of children being corrupted and homophobic stereotypes that paint queer people as sexual and moral deviants for political gain.
The question at large, though, is how this is antidemocratic. Mercieca also argues that the same weaponized communication that distorts reality also leaves individuals unaccountable for their actions. Whether this is Gov. DeSantis’s press secretary or a conservative activist, the use of this sort of harmful rhetoric creates conditions for further democratic backsliding. As the nation watched H.B. 1557 be signed into law on March 28, 2022, we saw a law that will fundamentally limit the free speech within classrooms go from a theoretical risk to a real threat. Moreover, copycat bills in 15 other legislatures may lead to these limitations becoming an issue beyond just Florida. It is paramount that we recognize that by letting this debate succumb the demagogic rhetoric that it has, the discussion around H.B. 1557 has become a key indicator of the erosion of political discourse and democratic backsliding in the U.S.
Goldberg, M. (2022, April 1). The right’s disney freakout. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/01/opinion/disney-dont-say-gay.html
Gutmann, A. (2007) The Lure and Danger of Extremist Rhetoric, Daedalus, 136(4) 70-78. https://doi.org/10.1162/daed.2007.136.4.70
Hesse, M. (2022, March 29). Fans of Florida’s ‘don’t say gay’ bill have a new favorite word: ‘grooming’. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2022/03/ 12/florida-dont-say-gay-bill/
Mercieca, J. R. (2019). Dangerous demagogues and weaponized communication. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 49(3), 264–279. https://doi.org/10.1080/02773945.2019.1610640
Migdon, B., & Simon, M. (2022, February 24). It’s not just Florida. 15 other ‘don’t say gay’-style bills are cropping up nationwide. The Hill. https://thehill.com/changing-america/respect/ equality/594980-florida-isnt-the-only-state-with-a-dont-say-gay-bill-15/