Wednesday, November 23, 2016

UPDATED: Words Are Important

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.

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.
An article by Lindy West in The Guardian makes a similar point:
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?”

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.”
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.

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.


  1. Well put, Lorne. I, too, shall refrain from the "alt-right" nonsense although I see nothing inappropriate in labeling these people fascists.

    I read their house organ, Breitbart, today, something I will start doing periodically, odious a task as that is. The comments are as telling as they are disturbing. The spirit of the brownshirts lives on in America. Trump had no choice but to publicly berate them but, so long as Bannon is his chief strategist, white supremacists have a seat at the head table.

    1. I have not yet visited the Breitbart, Mound, but I guess I should, just to know what the dark side is concocting. I did,however, listen to part of a Toronto CBC phone-in show earlier, in which the hostess invited people from visible minorities to call to tell of their experience with racism. I found it very disconcerting, not because I am so naive not to know that such exists in Canada, but because the deep hatred behind the epithets and verbal assaults was so unsettling to contemplate. Here is a link, but I recommend only a few minutes of listening:

  2. Thank you for this podcast and post, Lorne. I hope the backlash we're seeing against the hate will be even bigger than it looks now, but not forceful enough to send everyone reeling in the opposite direction - if that's possible.
    -from yet another former English teacher

    1. I hope that as people become aware of the scope of the problem, ninente, they will be more responsive and proactive. I have to admit that the things revealed in the podcast shocked and saddened me, but I guess I should have known better than to place too much faith in my fellow citizens, although, of course, the racists depicted are still very much of an unacceptable Canadian minority.

  3. .. exceptional & illuminating article .. as always..

    I sent a link to Mound re the new 'yellow journalists' .. and its worth several reads to come to terms with how simplistic self serving A-Holes utilizing 'new media' have zero compunction about profiting from people's ignorance (or their own), laziness.. or despair or destructive shallowness.

    This is what Marshall McLuhan foresaw & spoke of.. what Hunter S Thompson railed against.. This is the rattle & thum.. of Civil War.. The barberians are at the gate, yes.. but the new Quislings are the Media as controlled by vested interest.. Made & Paid in Canada, its the likes of Paul Godfrey (Mr Canadian Values) and in the US of A its running deeper

    If you're wondering who will unlock the gates at midnight, relax.. they will do it at noon, in plain sight.. and it will be those whom we elected as public servants.

    1. Thank you, Salamander. I did read the article on the new yellow journalists, and I was struck by how absolutely amoral those two young men are in purveying their distortions. The only metric that seems to matter to them is how much money they are making off of their muckraking.

      You final sentence is a chilling reminder of the terrible direction society seems to have chosen to travel in, Salamander. Subterfuge no longer seems at all necessary, does it?