The four stages of 'groomer speech'
Ted Cruz (Screen Grab)

Something I’ve been meaning to tell you. My dad is a pedophile. I’m not the victim. As always, though, there’s never just one. The ties that bound my family have largely come undone. Pain is now a feature, not a bug, of our lives. It’s a story without ending, nevermind a happy one.

So you can imagine what it felt like to see Republicans in the United States Senate using the word “pedophile” (as well as “child-predator”) during the confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Their use of it was loose, irrelevant, warped and worse. The purpose was advancing conspiracy theories already spreading. The goal was smearing the new Supreme Court justice with the smell of evil.

Worst of all, by overusing it, they watered down the word. They hollowed out its primary moral essence. They created conditions in which my dad and other pedophiles can now plausibly say their crimes aren’t as bad as they say. Just look at what the Democrats are doing.

Child abuse, predation, child molestation and rape – these are real problems responsible citizens musta find humane ways of addressing while serving the often conflicting needs for rehabilitation and justice.

These are real social, political and criminal problems.

By belittling them, the Republicans insult us.

They piss into the wounds of real victims, too.

That’s what you’d expect from a political party operating on the edge of political violence. Justice Jackson’s confirmation hearings were a case in point, according to Gabriel Rosenberg, a professor of gender, sexuality and feminist studies at Duke. During our interview, Professor Rosenberg walked me through the four stages of “groomer speech.”

“You're seeing a way in which partisan interests are pursued through the figure of the pedophile, not because any of these people give a damn about the sexual well-being of children, but because it's an incredibly charged and politically potent thing they can hurl.”

On Twitter, you offered an analysis of the rhetoric surrounding Florida’s new Don’t Say Gay legislation. That rhetoric seems to weaponize words like “pedophile” and “child predator” and other things beyond the pale.

You outlined four items. Can you explain?

The basic thesis of what I'm calling the “groomer panic,” which I think is coherently understood as a moral panic, or sex panic, is that it has the capacity to be significantly more dangerous than comparable sex panics in the past in which similar sorts of rhetorical weaponization of the terms “pedophile” or “child predator” had been deployed.

It has the possibility of spilling into actual political violence.

I made four points.

First, “groomer speech” is using the metaphor of child sexual abuse to describe educational content that rightwing forces disapprove of.

This metaphor of violent physical harm is being used to describe a disagreement over educational content and the underlying speech acts constituting that content. There is a confusion about different kinds of harm and a confusion about the difference between speech and act.

Second, this confusion means concrete evidence of child sex abuse is no longer necessary. Instead, the evidence is the speech act itself.

It becomes the case then that anyone can be credibly accused of being a “groomer,” not because there's evidence of grooming, but because such person has dissented from a preferred framework among conservatives for the understanding of Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law.

“Groomer” describes dissent from conservatism writ large.

There is specificity to the claim about “pedophile” that is itself unique and dramatic. I describe it as having an eliminationist intention.

Third, “groomer speech” is distinguishable from “subjugating speech.”

“Subjugating speech” might incite violence. It's possible. It has before. But broadly, it’s intended to justify social and political inequalities.

“Pedophile” is a specific term, however. It carries, at least in rightwing communities, a claim that the individual in question is pathologically invested in harming the most vulnerable members of society.

There's no interest in governing such individuals.

It's not about establishing them as second-class citizens.

It's about putting them to death.

That separates it from a general class of what I’m calling “subjugating speech” intended to degrade or lessen a person but isn't necessarily a suggestion that they and all people like them ought to be eliminated.

Fourth, “groomer speech” is not being directed at minorities.

At various points in American history, conservatives have accused gay people and other sexual (and sometimes racial) minorities of intending to prey on kids – they behave in a predatory fashion toward children.

What's interesting about “groomer speech” and what's most alarming about its use by the right is the charge being directed at powerful people who cannot by any measure be identified with a minority.

When Marjorie Taylor Greene said Mitt Romney is “pro-pedophile,” she's talking about the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nominee.

When James Lindsay called Nate Hochman, a writer for National Review, a “groomer,” he's talking about a conservative in good standing, or was. He's saying this individual also wants to abuse children.

This is radically different.

It's now about disciplining ingroup versus outgroup identity within conservatism writ large. It’s about reformatting and hardening the line between people who are conservative and people who are not.

In the end, conservatives are the good ones. They're anti-pedophile. Anyone who dissents from the conservative framework is therefore pro-pedophile. They constitute individuals who must be eliminated.

Ted Cruz used to talk about “San Francisco values.” Others talked about “the gay agenda.” Those are more abstract than “pedophile.” You’re saying we’ve arrived at a new and more explicit point in the evolution of conservative rhetoric. Is that accurate?

That's generally correct.

I would add that on the right, they're open to the idea of people who prey on children deserving the most extreme forms of violence.

I don't think anybody on the far right is trying to hide that.

That’s fundamentally important.

“Groomer speech” is deployed to advance virtually anything that fits within the broader political program of the conservative movement.

Right now, it's about targeting people who dissent from a particular kind of orthodoxy around interpretation of educational content.

But then we saw it coming into play in specious arguments about Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's sentencing record – that she was “pro-pedophile.” Therefore Mitt Romney, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski [“moderate” Republican senators who voted for her confirmation to the Supreme Court] were also “pro-pedophile.”

It's spilling into confirmations of Supreme Court nominees.

That's a break from the past.

That speaks to the flexibility and centrality of the charge eventually becoming the basis of things like criminal policy, militarization, policing, tax policy and labor policy. It can become a basic rhetorical strategy the far right uses to justify whatever they want to justify.

You're with us and the children.

Or you're on the other side with the pedophiles.

I’m thinking of eugenics. The antipathy toward LGBTQ people comes from the idea that LGBTQ-ness infects white people. As a result, they don't have enough babies. With too few white babies, white people risk becoming a minority. How would you understand that?

During the early human eugenics movement, there was a great deal of enthusiasm in the United States for coercive sterilization of anyone who exhibited homosexual tendencies or who desired sex with men.

There was this idea that homosexuality constituted a dangerous social contagion that needed to be eliminated from society regardless of whether it could be passed on as a congenital defect. It was that grave.

Immediately after World War II, there was something called the Lavender Scare period in which heightened concern about male homosexuality resulted in the creation of a lot of criminal psychopathology laws.

These laws created legal justification for jailing and sterilizing gay people under the auspices of gay people preying on innocent children.

So the far right isn’t punching down. It's punching sideways – or even up in the case of senators. Is there a link historically between that and a leap into political violence? Do they go hand in hand?

I think Judge Jackson's confirmation hearings clearly illustrate how this works. The Republican Party did not want to see anyone vote for her. Various Republican senators fixated on a specious charge that she'd been light on sentencing people who possessed child pornography.

It was so specious that Andrew McCarthy, who is a notable and extremely right wing figure with National Review, basically labeled it “demagoguery.” He said there were better reasons to oppose her.

The right mobilized after labeling her “pro-pedophile.” From there, they disciplined GOP apostates by labeling them “pro-pedophile,” too. They wanted to show as much opposition as they could.

Actual sexual harm to children had nothing to do with it.

But once it got invoked, it became a disciplinary tool.

You're seeing a way in which partisan interests are pursued through the figure of the pedophile, not because any of these people give a damn about the sexual well-being of children, but because it's an incredibly charged and politically potent thing they can hurl.

That kind of irresponsibility, with no bottom, carries with it its own momentum. It can become more and more difficult to control.