Discover more from From Streets to Scholarship by Terence Lester
Rhetoric and the Weaponization of Words
Exploring Destructive Rhetoric
If you have never lived through something like homelessness, it is best not to give a hard critique, especially when that critique comes from a place where words can be weaponized in a way that upholds a harmful social construction about people you have never met before.
A few days ago, at around 6 AM, I kept receiving alerts on my cellphone. When I picked up my phone, I noticed several people tagged me in a viral video featuring a Fox commentator, Jesse Watters. Intrigued, I clicked on the video and found three people engaged in a conversation that shifted from politics to homelessness.
The words that came out of Jesse Watters’ mouth were beyond belief, and if you would like to listen to the clip yourself, please see it below.
I had two reactions:
First, I was utterly disgusted. He framed this very sensitive and complex issue as dismissive, distant, and trampled on the dignity of people he had never met.
Second, I was appalled that Watters somehow believed that homelessness was reducible to a single-story narrative that “all” people experiencing homeless are no good.
I wanted to yell at the phone and say, Watters, homelessness is not monolithic, or one size fits all.
And I think he would know this if he had even the slightest understanding of homelessness history, the evolution of homelessness, and how it became criminalized within the last 50 years. However, with a very particular framing, he spoke about this population in a very harmful way on TV, with millions of listeners perpetuating a criminal and “sin-talk” view of those without an address.
But this is what toxic, unchecked narrative does: it frames, it limits, it excludes, it marginalizes, it sanitizes, it punishes, and it tramples on the inherent worth of all who are unhoused.
Watters’ words cut deep. Here is what he said explicitly in the entire clip below,
“Homelessness is not about affordable housing. It's about drug addicts who want to wander around and live in tents on the sidewalks. You can't coddle anti-social behavior. You can't subsidize anti-social behavior. You have to stigmatize it. You can't celebrate people with purple hair, nose rings, and four kids from four different men who dress like trash and make them out to be some sort of cutting-edge heroes. You have to call them what they are. These are people who have failed in life and are on their deathbeds. If we aren't honest about it, we will never fix this problem.”
Words can act as weapons, inflicting emotional, psychological, and social harm, particularly to unhoused people. It is crucial to recognize the gravity of how words can be used against those on the margins, especially when media personalities like Watters, who have access to enormous platforms, can influence masses of people with their words.
Below, I want to evaluate four statements in Watters’ speech that are particularly harmful and can target those who are unhoused in a very harmful way.
“Homelessness is not about affordable housing.”
Response: Research indicates affordability is among the key factors contributing to homelessness. By dismissing this fact, Watters overlooks the struggles of millions of hardworking people who, despite earning minimum wage, find themselves unable to afford housing. His statement disregards the complex circumstances faced by those experiencing homelessness and fails to acknowledge the structural barriers that perpetuate their housing instability.
“It’s about drug addicts who want to wander around and live in tents on the sidewalks.”
Response: Research demonstrates that while mental health challenges and substance abuse can contribute to homelessness, they are not the sole causes. Commentators like Watters need to communicate this crucial fact, as it ensures that people do not solely attribute homelessness to drugs and mental health challenges. By acknowledging the multifaceted nature of homelessness, we can foster a more informed and compassionate understanding of the complex circumstances that lead people to experience homelessness.
“You have to stigmatize it.”
Response: Stigmatizing has never solved anything; it only perpetuates false narratives about people experiencing homelessness. When Watters communicates this way, he enables those who view unhoused people as criminals to cultivate more hate and fear toward them simply because they lack a permanent address.
“You have to call them what they are. These are people who have failed in life and are on their deathbeds. If we aren’t honest about it, we will never fix this problem.”
Response: It is crucial to remember that experiencing difficult circumstances does not justify trampling upon the worth and dignity of unhoused people. When Watters uses his words to attack the unhoused, he also attacks fellow human beings who inherently possess worth, regardless of their housing status.
The unhoused community faces numerous challenges, including poverty, lack of access to resources, and societal neglect. Verbal attacks, hate speech, and derogatory language create an environment of fear, exclusion, and dehumanization.
Politicians, commentators, and news outlets possess significant influence in shaping public discourse. Terms like "criminals," "lazy bums," "system abusers," "scum," or as Watters suggests, "failures on their deathbeds," are used to dehumanize and marginalize, reinforcing biases and fostering a hostile and discriminatory environment.
The consequences of using words as weapons and employing rhetorical tactics by people in positions of power need to be examined and criticized. Jesse Watters’ comments are a clear example of how such language perpetuates negative stereotypes about people who are vulnerable and disregards the various factors contributing to the issue, like the lack of affordable housing and systemic failures.
In my opinion, this kind of journalism is careless. It aims to stigmatize by using a vulnerable group to attack a political party that the reporter opposes. However, true scholarship recognizes that addressing homelessness requires a collective effort from everyone (regardless of party). Why? Because homelessness affects all people.
Holding politicians and commentators accountable for their words and narratives is vital because narrative justice is a part of social change.
May we all be reminded that words can be used as weapons, or they can be used as tools to uplift humanity and promote the well-being of those experiencing homelessness.
If you would like to view my recent film, Homesick, check it out [HERE]
If you want to explore homelessness in the U.S., please consider checking out the book “I See You: How Love Opens Our Eyes to Invisible People.”
Explore my book “When We Stand: The Power of Seeking Justice Together” to delve into the profound impact of community involvement and collective action for social change.
Discover “All God’s Children: How Confronting Buried History Can Build Racial Solidarity” to gain insight into the significance of understanding the historical narratives that shape individuals and foster racial solidarity.
Or, subscribe to the Love Beyond Walls Newsletter—visit the site and sign up.
Loftus-Farren, Z. (2011). Tent cities: An interim solution to homelessness and affordable housing shortages in the United States. California Law Review, 1037-1081.
Homelessness in America: Overview of data and causes. (n.d.-b). https://homelesslaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Homeless_Stats_Fact_Sheet.pdf
Phelan, J., Link, B. G., Moore, R. E., & Stueve, A. (1997). The stigma of homelessness: The impact of the label” homeless” on attitudes toward poor persons. Social psychology quarterly, 323-337.