We’ve heard it a million times: “Words mean things.” Yet in political discourse, words are often used as manipulative tools to promote an agenda, not to communicate truth. Political language has become — and maybe it always has been — insincere.
In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote:
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.
In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.
We certainly see this in politics. “Weasel words,” as Theodore Roosevelt called them, are designed to make the objectionable acceptable. “Pro-choice” hides the truth of abortion beneath the veneer of freedom. “Undocumented worker” glosses over illegalities with benign terminology about employment. “Social justice” glams up redistribution of wealth. “Voluntary” in tax law is a slippery term that doesn’t really mean what you think it means.
“War on terrorism” is as nonsensical as “war on tanks,” but it is used to avoid naming the real enemy. “Consensus” is equated with science when applied to man-made global warming.
“Racism” now means anything that defends American or Southern culture. “Homophobia” involves no real fear — it’s a slur leveled against anyone who has a legitimate beef with the LGBT agenda. “Sexist” is now the descriptor for anyone who defies the modern feminist goal to equalize the sexes and to empower women at the expense of men.
Everyday words can also have meaning imposed on them, transforming normal speech into so-called “code words” or “dog whistles.”
If a white man talks about America having a real “culture problem in urban areas,” then it’s supposedly code for “racism.” “States’ rights” is now synonymous with “white supremacism.” The same is true for “cutting taxes” and “law and order.” All of these terms have become code words for undermining equality and civil rights, even though sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Cutting taxes actually means cutting taxes, so everyone can benefit. Law and order is what it says: promoting justice and maintaining the civil society.
One reason for this breakdown in language is the rise of subjectivity: people defining themselves, their own experiences, or their perspectives in their own terms, and everyone else has to accept it, even if it flies in the face of objective reality.
If a man wants to be called a woman, then he’s a woman, and woe be unto you if you use the wrong pronoun. If two men raising donor kids want to be called “parents,” “mommy and daddy,” and a “family,” then the rest of us must accept their self-identification as truth.
In light of this constant manipulation of language, I find recent efforts in the media to rename and define the “alt-right” quite interesting. In a constantly shifting world of language, journalism is always trying to keep up and remain accurate, often making adjustments by labeling people or groups according to their own self-identification. A common example is replacing the term “blacks” with “African-Americans,” even though most never set foot on African soil, and many have mixed heritage. If we were consistent in this (and we are not, which is my main point), none of us would be called “Americans.” We’d all be hyphenated. I’d be Irish-French-Scottish-English-American.
Or I could just pick my favorite, and demand that I be identified as an Irish-American. Even cooler would be Celtic-American. Not accurate, but who cares? It’s what I want.
Of course, it would be confusing if we all did that, wouldn’t it? Just as it’s confusing — and purposely so — when words don’t comport with objective truth in politics. The solution to all the bluster about words and labels is to take Orwell’s sage advice:
Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.
But there’s the rub. Too often the truth gets in the way of a good political agenda. The media today want to clean up language — at least when it comes to the alt-right — but the same effort isn’t given to, say, abortion organizations. Or environmental movements, which aren’t “green,” but red. Or “civil rights” groups like “Black Lives Matter,” which are actually turning civil rights on its ear.
That’s because these groups fall more in line with the political ideology of the media.
For the alt-right, though, there must be clearly defined meaning, and, as ThinkProgress hypocritically suggests, it can’t be allowed to name itself because the “alternative right” is not an “accurate descriptor of either a movement or its members”:
[The alt-Right] are essentially standard-issue white supremacists who discovered a clever way to make themselves appear more innocuous — even a little hip.
I wonder what ThinkProgress would say in response to changing “Black Panthers” to “Black Supremacists,” since they’re actually racist militants motivated by Marxism, not “revolutionaries” inspired by “undying love for people,” as some claim.
Or what would ThinkProgress say about changing the “War on Terror” to “War on Radical Islamists”? Well, of course they wouldn’t approve, because that would be racist (even though Islam isn’t a race — another point of confusion in this game of doublespeak).
By relabeling the alt-right, ThinkProgress and others are merely showing their bias, not their quest for truth, as they claim. Instead of allowing the alt-right to identify itself, as ThinkProgress does with so many other groups, these purveyors of truth at the liberal website will now refer to anyone they identify to be a part of this group as “white nationalists.” Because they’re concerned with “clarity and accuracy,” don’t you know.
When it comes to the alt-right, the “white nationalist” descriptor might be true for a tiny fringe group, but again, where’s the same fervor for groups on the Left?
Sydney Ember of the New York Times says the a solution to the problem of establishing truth in political discourse is to “describe rather than label.” Of course, the problem is that some groups are hard to define. What is the alt-right exactly? According to some, it’s a mixed bag. To others, they’re hardcore white supremacists, misogynists, and anti-Semites.
Given all the confusion, what is a truth-seeker to do? Orwell’s advice remains sound, even if it’s difficult to achieve: let the meaning choose the word. And make sure the meaning is true, and not simply a meaning imposed by political detractors.
My challenge to the media is to apply this newfound concern for truth fairly and consistently. If you’re concerned about getting to the real meaning of the alt-right, then do the same for all groups and campaigns that use language to hide their real agenda.