Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
What does "alt-right" really mean?
Who gets to say?
One of my daily newspapers, the Kansas City Star, had an article this week on the alt-right. Among other things, it included some discussion of what the term means. The New York Times had an article this week on “News outlets rethink usage of the term ‘Alt-Right.’” So the moment seems ripe (kairos, anyone?) for talking about the meanings and power of words.
What does any word really mean?
Who gets to say?
The debate over the term ”alt-right” is the same debate people have over other words that can define and potentially shape us. As I discussed in an earlier blog post, words have power. They influence what we think and how we view the world. It matters what we call things.
So the Highway Patrol and Traffic Safety Administration want people to say ”crash” not “accident.” “Accident” downplays the deliberate risky behavior that causes most crashes.
And some people with disabilities don’t want to be referred to as ”disabled” since it reduces them to a condition, while some autistic people prefer to be called “autistic” rather than “person with autism” because it identifies them as inherently different from others without denial or shame.
And “pro-family" supporters don’t want to be referred to as “anti-gay.” If you heard about the BuzzFeed article on the pastor to the church that Chip and Joanna Gaines (HGTV Fixer Upper house renovation stars) attend, you might have read that the church is against same-sex marriage and that the pastor believes in conversion therapy for ”homosexuals.” Many news sites headlined that the Gaines’s church was” anti-gay.” In an interview, the pastor himself denies it
“Is Antioch Community Church--and the Gaineses--anti-gay?
So ”pro-helping,” not” anti-gay.”
And now we have “alt-right,” another contentious term that some people are arguing we shouldn't use.
Is "alt-right" an inaccurate term, like “accident,” that softens what it refers to? Or a misleading term, like “pro-helping,” that reframes what most people would say defines it? Or, like ”person with disability” or “autistic person,” does the alt-right group get to say what the term means and what they’re called?
It’s tricky. It has to do with what gives words meaning.
So what does ”alt-right” really mean? How do we know what any word means?
Spoiler: None of these is right by itself.
If "alt-right" means just what it says, then I have two questions
Alt to what?
Right of what?
From the parts of the word themselves, the alt-right would seem to be a place on the scale from progressive to conservative, or from the far left to the far right. At least some people describe the group as an alternative to the existing conservative or existing far right movement. So alt to the dominant movements on the political right. And right not just of center but right of the far right.
But according to news sources and style sheets, the alt-right is not really a group who define themselves by conservative politics. While far right, the group seems most distinctly defined as a white nationalist movement. One of the leaders of the alt-right movement, Paul Ramsey, described alt-right as being "more about racial and national identity." "If we don't have a border, we don't have nation." Ramsey also defined the group by its policies. "The alt-right, he said, supports racial and national identity, protected borders, regulated trade, traditional gender roles and restrained foreign policy. The movement also is pro-government, he said, and skeptical of democracy." Not much in their own definitions about alternative or right.
Dictionaries are all about what words refer to, but those definitions come from the way the words are used, what they seem to refer to in actual use. "Alt-right" is a new enough term that most dictionaries haven't defined it yet. Thanks to Mike Licht, I discovered the Oxford University press definition of alt-right
So at least one dictionary maker has found that "alt-right" does refer to extreme conservative viewpoints, if not politics. Notice that these dictionary makers found trolling on online media as an essential part of what it refers to. That meaning isn't visible in the term "alt-right."
Maybe the origin of the word can tell me more about what the word first referred to. I tried to find the word’s first use–and the reasoning for labeling itself as alt to something and right of something. The KCStar credits Richard Spencer with coining the term. His website AlternativeRight.com is now associated with the journal Radix. In fact, I couldn’t find any definition of alt-right on the originator’s website. Instead, its About page attaches itself to the National Policy Institute, which, it says, is “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of European people in the United States, and around the world.” No mention of alternatives, And no mention of right politics. Whatever its original meaning might have been, like all words the meaning has changed over time.
What the word refers to today seems to have little to do with its literal meaning of "alternative" and "right." That lack of transparent reference is one of the reasons opponents of the alt-right object to using the term. One commenter on a Washington Post article complained, “STOP CALLING THEM ‘ALT-RIGHT.’ THEY ARE RACISTS, WHITE SUPREMICISTS, NAZIS.”
From that perspective, the invisible reference makes the term “alt-right” like “accident” rather than “crash"–an inaccurate term that softens and even hides what it refers to. Not a conservative political group but a white nationalist movement. From the perspective of members of the movement and even some of its opponents, no other term captures the full ideology, and so we should keep using it until its fuller meaning is well known and becomes the term's primary reference.
The National Policy Institute, in case you missed it, is the group Spencer was addressing when he raised his glass and proclaimed, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” To which some in his audience responded with a Nazi Sieg Heil salute. Which takes me to the next way of looking at what word means
Much of a word's meaning comes from our association of it with other words in particular contexts. The word "text" might mean many things, including textbooks and documents, but today most people seeing the word "text" would think first of text messages because it's so commonly used in that context.
The little alt- prefix might be associated with alternative musical genres, like grunge or noise-rock, as Lorna Shaddick points out in her blog for oxforddictionaries.com. The leader Spencer may have associated the alt-right with alienated teenagers and rock musicians when he described them as people who were “‘deeply alienated, intellectually, even emotionally and spiritually, from American conservatism’.” That association of alt- with music genres sticks for other people too. One commenter on the Washington Post article complained
“Please, please stop referring to a white Christian supremacist movement as the ‘alt-right’ — a phrase that sounds like a subgenre of rock music” --–NYT Nov 28 2016
The prefix may associate the term with a musical genre, but most people don't place "alt-right" in the context of music of any kind. The alt-right has been most visible during the recent US election, associated with some of Donald Trump’s platforms. So its supporters praise Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border. They support stopping immigration and sending immigrants already here to other countries. In the context of Trump's victory, Spencer points out new associations: "the Alt-Right is more deeply connected to Trumpian populism than the conservative movement. We’re the establishment now."
As the OUP dictionary definition shows, the most common context for the alt-right has been online media, where they "disseminate deliberately controversial content." In that context, the movement has become associated with the extreme positions it's associated with more than conservative politics or alienated rock music.
And there have been more particular associations, too. A young man from Kansas and exemplary member of the alt-right chalks a sidewalk with “Make Lindsborg white again” and the outline of a dead body. The story makes the national news. Another association.
And then some members give the Nazi salute to their leader. In public. With photos to record it. Another association. This event has established an association with neo-Nazism that will likely define it from here on out.
In the context of online media and the US election, “alt-right” has become associated with these extreme events and controversial postings. For its opponents, that means the term is associated with racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and sexist statements, policies, and proposals. For those people in those contexts,
“alt-right,” like “pro-helping” rather than “anti-gay,” has become a misleading term that denies the meanings that most would associate with it.
But what a term refers to and what association it calls up differs in different contexts, so people using the same term may mean different things. The style guidelines laid out by the Washington Post and the Associated Press apply to journalists reporting the news. In that context, terms need to be as transparent and objective as possible, to remove as much bias as possible. In news reporting, using the term "alt-right" would allow its potentially misleading reference and hide its association with controversial positions. The AP guidelines tell journalists always to define the term to make its beliefs clearer to readers, and NPR says to explain the term. The New York Times article referred to the movement as “so-called alt-right.” “So-called” because that’s what the group members call themselves in their own contexts.
But, like “people with disabilities” and “autistic people,” does the alt-right get to decide what they call themselves? And do the rest of us have to go along with it, to allow this group to define how it wants to be identified?
My answer is yes to the first question, but no to the second, because different contexts give words different meanings.
Members of the alt-right movement are themselves debating whether to continue calling themselves "alt-right" because of its recent associations. Spencer calls "alt-right" ”a household name” that has “power and resonance” and so shouldn’t be given up. “You don’t rebrand when you’re making a huge impact everywhere.” Another leader, Ramsey, says the term has been tainted too much by its association with the Nazi salute. Nazism, he says, is ”just a brand that doesn’t translate well. It scares people.” So Ramsey would change the label to something that “translates” better, now that its associations have become so tainted.
Notice that the leaders of the alt-right movement themselves make clear they're not trying for the most accurate descriptive term. Spencer and Ramsey both refer to the term as a brand. They use the term not to describe their identity transparently and accurately but, as the AP usage guidelines say, “as a public relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience.”
Unlike ”person with disability” or ”autistic person,” ”alt-right” is less a self-descriptor and more a PR strategy, a term meant to hide its scarier associations behind a less scary brand. So journalists and others have no ethical obligation to refer to members of the movement by its branding term.
So what does alt-right really mean?
Whether in its reference or its associations, whether in the context of news reporting or trolling on social media, whether defined by supporters or opponents, "alt-right" has changed in meaning over time and will continue to change. Since meaning comes from the ways people use the term in particular contexts, continued use of "alt-right" in its most common contexts will continue to define and refine what it really means. I suspect that the the dictionaries of the future, when they finally include an entry for alt-right, will define it differently from the Oxford Dictionary's current definition.
On the other hand, Oxford dictionaries just announced their word of the year for 2016. It's "post-truth – an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." As we move into a post-truth world, perhaps discussions of word meanings will become irrelevant. Words will simply mean whatever we feel and believe personally they should mean. As if communicating about controversial terms isn't already difficult enough.
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