U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump has, among other things, implied he is more Christian than Pope Francis. As a self-described good Christian, Trump might heed some advice from an ancient letter attributed to the apostle James. James singles out boasting as dangerous language, comparing it to a small flame that ignites a massive fire.
As everyone likely knows by now, Trump has bragged about sexually accosting women and getting away with it because he was a star. And then the Republican nominee made light of the conversation. “But it’s locker room talk and it’s one of those things.”
Two subconscious and harmful attitudes are worth noting here: language is benign and boys will be boys.
Professional athletes were quick to respond to the remark about “locker room talk.” Many took to social media to condemn lewd talk about women and vulgar boasting about sexual exploits.
NFL player Jacob Tamme tweeted, “Please stop saying ‘locker room talk.’ It’s not normal. And even if it were normal, it’s not right.”
Another National Football League player, Chris Conley, said, “If that’s the talk you hear around you, then be the place where change begins.”
And from former National Basketball Association star Grant Hill: “I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms and what Trump said is not locker room banter.”
These athletes’ messages bear repeating because what we generally understand as locker room talk (ribald humour and bawdy boasting) exists and it is dangerous.
Timothy Baghurst, associate professor of Health and Human Performance at Oklahoma State, and several of his colleagues have studied the attitudes and behaviours of college athletes in the United States.
“It seems Trump’s language – while extreme – is not out of line with what is being said in college locker rooms around the U.S.,” Baghurst writes. “And while such graphic talk may not occur in all locker rooms, our study suggests that those with status and power, whether athletes or celebrities, perceive sexual benefits from their status.”
Baghurst noted that some college athletic programs are under scrutiny for how they handle investigations into sexual assault.
This kind of banter is not restricted to private locker rooms or varsity athletes. On several occasions while in the change room of a public facility, my husband has overheard lewd conversations between teenage boys about their girlfriends, female classmates and their sexual exploits. While the content of these conversations is disturbing, equally troubling is that these young men are not embarrassed to be overheard. This suggests they see no problem with their attitudes about women.
The Trump supporter who told the New York Times, “The only thing the tape shows is that (Trump’s) a healthy heterosexual” is dead wrong. Language is a powerful tool for shaping our attitudes and behaviour. Given sufficient exposure to and participation in language that dehumanizes women (or any group of people), harmful attitudes insinuate themselves into a person’s psyche and eventually influence their actions. As allegations of sexual misconduct surface, it appears that Trump’s vulgar boasting was not limited to words alone.
Trump boasts about other things as well. He will build a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants. He will ban Muslims. He will send Syrian refugees back. He will put “crooked Hillary” in prison. He will drain the swamp that is Washington D.C. He will fix the media. In this way, he will “Make America Great Again.”
His boasting fans the flame of mistrust, anger and hatred, and has galvanized a segment of the American population.
Trump’s type of inflammatory rhetoric dehumanizes and distorts the truth. It gives those who hold similar biases licence to exclude and demonize. It is the type of language that has his supporters sporting T-shirts with the slogan “Trump that Bitch.” It is the type of language that has supporters publicly avowing to racial profile and intimidate voters at the polls, and to take up arms if Trump losses the election. It is the type of rhetoric that forms the basis of evil propaganda that makes atrocities, like the Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide, possible.
Trump has lit a fire that is burning out of control. It could leave ugly scars on the American socio-political landscape for years.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.