Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
- Excerpt from George Orwell's Politics and the English Language
As a reader, writer and retired English teacher, words have always been important to me. Words rarely exist in a vacuum; they are almost always laden with context, either implicit or carefully spelled out. They have the power to convey meaning and truth, but they also have tremendous power to either help to heal or to destroy. Words need to be respected.
It is within this context that I was very happy to see ThinkProgress offer this note from its editors:
You can learn everything you need to know about the “alt-right” by looking at the man who popularized its name. Credit goes to Richard Spencer, head of the white supremacist National Policy Institute (NPI), and one of the country’s leading contemporary advocates of ideological racism.
The weekend before Thanksgiving, Spencer keynoted an NPI conference in Washington, D.C. Over the course of his speech, he approvingly quoted Nazi propaganda, said that the United States is meant to be a “white country,” and suggested that many political commentators are “soulless golem” controlled by Jewish media interests.
... ThinkProgress will no longer treat “alt-right” as an accurate descriptor of either a movement or its members. We will only use the name when quoting others. When appending our own description to men like Spencer and groups like NPI, we will use terms we consider more accurate, such as “white nationalist” or “white supremacist.”
We will describe people and movements as neo-Nazis only when they identify as such, or adopt important aspects of Nazi rhetoric and iconography.An article by Lindy West in The Guardian makes a similar point:
The point here is not to call people names, but simply to describe them as they are. We won’t do racists’ public relations work for them. Nor should other news outlets.
In my column last week, I wrote: “One defining aspect of alt-right white supremacy is that it vehemently denies its own existence … This erosion of language is an authoritarian tactic designed to stifle dissent. If you cannot call something by its name, then how can you fight it?”Such measures as described above are all to the good. As I wrote in a recent post, New Yorker writer David Remnick points out the fact that the media are now beginning to 'normalize' Donald Trump and his ilk. This must not be allowed to continue, and it is to be hoped that more news agencies will find the courage and integrity to tell things as they are, not the way their corporate masters and Trump racists want us to believe.
So I was heartened yesterday when KUOW, a public radio station in Seattle, released a statement announcing that they will be substituting “white supremacy” or “white nationalism” for “alt-right”. The reasoning, laid out in a memo to staff: “‘Alt right’ doesn’t mean anything, and normalises something that is far from normal. So we need to plain-speak it.”
I leave you with one final warning from Orwell:
Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
UPDATE: At noon, CBC's Ontario Today had a show about words that hurt. It is painful to listen to, but also a sobering reminder that Canada is hardly free from racism.