Listen to the Pilot Episode of RhetoricLee Speaking on SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/rhetoriclee/rls-ep-12-trumps-appetite-for-gun-control
Following the mass shootings at El Paso and Dayton in early August, I was sitting in a coffee shop, ignoring the news, as I usually do since you-know-who got elected, but couldn’t help but notice the giant text scrolling across the bottom of the television:
“PRESIDENT SAYS THERE’S AN APPETITE FOR GUN CONTROL”
This word “appetite” struck me as very specific. I started to pay attention and noticed the word “appetite” repeated in different news contexts around the events. I also learned, upon further research, that the President had previously stated on various occasions that “there is no political appetite for gun control.”
Whenever we start to see a word circulating in this way, we know that means it is doing something for our collective imaginary.
The current English word that we know as “appetite,” according to Google etymology and the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the Old French word apetit (modern appétit), from Latin appetitus ‘desire for’, from appetere ‘seek after’, from ad- ‘to’ + petere ‘seek.’
That’s not surprising. An “appetite” for gun control means there’s a desire for gun control. Or people are seeking gun control. We already knew that. So why the word appetite specifically?
Well, looking at the word “appetite,” you’ll notice another word embedded within: “petite,” as in “small, diminutive in size,” from the late 18th century: French, feminine of petit ‘small’.
Now these words “appetite” and “petite” don’t have any kind of direct relationship but by using the word “appetite” to describe the collective feelings we have in the U.S. around gun control, the President associated the “desire” with the “small.” By saying, “there’s an appetite for gun control,” we are essentially saying, “there is a small desire” for gun control.
Therefore, the word appetite can allow those in high visibility positions following shootings who do not believe in gun control, like the President, to acknowledge the severity and devastation of the tragedy, as they must do according to the ethical social norms that we haven’t managed to throw out the window since 2016, without giving any more credence to the call for, desire for, demand for, passion for, gun control and all the lives that it would, by most credible research measures, save.
Of course, the slippage in the word “appetite” is what haunts its use by the President. Historically, appetite has been a very specific kind of word that means not simply a “desire for” but an especially thoughtful and deep desire for. When someone says they have an “appetite” it isn’t simply the same thing as saying “I want stuff.” Wanting is brute, aggressive, uncontrolled. Appetite is specific, nuanced; it implies taste and thoughtfulness. Many decades again, one didn’t say “I’m not hungry” in response to the question, “Shall we eat?” Hunger is a base desire that marks the body as fragile and wantan. We didn’t acknowledge that kind of bruteness in polite society. Instead, we said, “I do not have an appetite.” The appetites are culturally determined, collective in nature. They mark the place where the base desires of individuals in flesh bags meet the public good. The President, for example, is a person of desires, not a person of appetite.
But we don’t use the word “appetite” very often anymore so that competing set of rhetorical associations isn’t going to have as much hold in the public imagination as the association with the word “petite.” As we see from the Google NGram Viewer, the word “appetite” has fallen off in usage in recent years.
When words circulate less, they can both capture attention more easily (because they are less familiar) and also require more scrutiny because we don’t see them deployed in as many contexts, and therefore don’t intuitively realize their multiple potentialities in a way we might with words with which we are practiced, such as “Queer,” for example.
Therefore, Trump is correct to say there is an “appetite” for gun control because “appetites” are collective phenomena. He also won the rhetorical battle of this particular moment by bringing the “small” baggage to the game. However, there is slippage available for exploitation by gun control activists in the word “appetite.” The President has, essentially, committed himself to the statement that there is a tasteful, collective, and nuanced desire for gun control, which is then implicitly contrasted against the brute, careless, blunt desires of the pro-gun lobbyists.
Of course, that counter-argument is only going to be seized in a manner timely enough to matter if we get better and faster at scrutinizing language.
UPDATE: In the few hours since recording and posting this pilot episode, I also discovered a POLITICO poll suggesting that some (the article says “most” but that seems an overstatement for 55%) Republicans have “an appetite” for banning assault-style weapons (which, by the way, were illegal in the United States until recently). The poll was conducted in the aftermath of the same shootings to which Trump responded with his comment about the “appetite” for gun control.
The poll found that 55 percent of GOP voters were comfortable with banning assault weapons, and 54 percent said they would support stricter gun laws more generally.
The article makes no comment on Trump’s deployment of “appetite” in his statements to the press surrounding the shootings