Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Alt-left, alt-right, and words creating false equivalency
The eclipse could distract us only so long from the terrible violence and divisions in the world. The eclipse made many of us see our position in the universe more clearly—an experience of our smallness and our commonality that, for a brief moment, brought some sense of shared humanity. And this past weekend we in the US had another reminder—the devastating Hurricane Harvey and the disastrous flooding of Houston and one-quarter of the people in Texas that continues still.
But even those singular experiences fade faster than the repeated violence, terrorism, and hatred around the world.
The meanings of those repeated experiences are shaped by the people who comment on them, who tell us what those experiences mean. And those meanings become cemented through repetition, especially through the repetition of words.
“Alt-right,” not white supremacists
“Alt-left,” not counter-protestors
In the face of this effort to create false equivalency between neo-Nazis and those who oppose racism, I feel the need to return to a point I’ve written about several times in several ways.
The words we use matter
If you have time, I’d ask you to reread a few of my earlier posts, to build the many ways the importance of the words we use plays out (there are more posts on words and meanings, but here are the most relevant today):
How Words Reflect and Shape Us
What does Alt-right really mean (though I would come down harder on the term today)
As I wrote before:
The words we use come from who we are, as individuals, a society, and a culture. Words reflect our values and beliefs, our ways of viewing the world. And they reflect our history, who we have been. And words may then shape our views of the world, too, influencing what we see and how we see.
Or even whether we call a car wreck an “accident”:
Instead of “accident,” highway patrols and safety agencies are using the words “crash” and “wreck.” According to Mark Rosekind, director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,
Or, from a more recent post, think about the ways our words present cancer as a battle. Maybe new ways of treating cancer will shift patients from “survivors” of a war to cohabiters or roommates, people “living with” cancer long-term.
Words will always shape our perspective, like it or not.
But, as journalists and other truth-tellers recognized in the early days of the current US presidency, “alternative facts” don’t become factual just because Kellyanne Conway says they are. They’re still falsehoods at the least, lies at the most.
The danger lies in letting the words pass, as I argued before:
If we come to accept statements contrary to documented facts as “alternatives” rather than wrong, then there’s nothing keeping anyone from asserting anything. In fact, [then press secretary Sean] Spicer argued that Trump can keep claiming with no substantiated evidence that millions of illegal votes were cast in the election, causing him to lose the popular vote, because it is his “long-standing belief.” The fact that there’s no evidence to support that claim—in fact, there is evidence to the contrary—matters not at all if “alternative facts” are justified by “belief.” We are indeed in a post-truth world.
We have the power to resist.
My comments on sexual assault being dismissed as “locker room talk” have become relevant again:
“The power of naming is that it’s not individual, but collective. One person can insist on framing it as “locker room talk,” but the framing succeeds only if others accept it. That’s the difference between naming and “spin.” Any publicist can attempt to spin a story, to reframe what happened in a different light. But naming comes from the culture that’s there, the beliefs and attitudes emerging from who we are and who we want to be, a framing already present among us.
We still have the power to resist the renaming before it becomes so insidious that we stop noticing it. We are not yet in Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.
(Adding to a bit of an earlier post again:)
When resisters are chided for being “alt-left” because they are an alternative to hatred, beware.
When pronouns define a “we” that excludes large numbers of people* and a “them” that now seems to include you, beware.
When well-established scientific evidence becomes part of a “debate” with “two sides,” beware.
When the powers-that-be use the word “Islam” repeatedly and only in the label “radical Islamic terrorists,” beware.
Now is the time, as it is happening and we can still recognize it. Don’t let powerful individuals usurp the power of naming. Assert our collective power to resist. Insist that our collective culture is not post-truth but knows the difference between fact and belief. Insist that we all, without excluding anyone, must watch what we say. Because we know these alternative truths--
Resistance is not futile.