When ideas are fraught, so is language. Does using the term "alt-right" mask misogyny and racism? When is "white supremacist" an accurate descriptor, and when is it a bludgeon? We hear from our followers on Facebook and Twitter about recent rhetorical instances in the media that obscure the truth. And, Brooke talks with writer and linguist John McWhorter about words that take on partisan leanings, and why it's important to choose the right ones.
Prelude 7: Sign and Sigil by John Zorn
Trance Dance by John Zorn
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. Now we move on from the media’s task to yours, and that is to be ever-more conscious of the language the media use because the Trump era presents a special challenge, and we just heard journalists contending with the problem of choosing the words to cover him. Do his ideas square with the consensus on basic science, law and morality? And if they don’t, should we at least take note of those contradictions before they become the norm?
BOB GARFIELD: We asked our friends on Twitter and Facebook to keep watch with us over language in the media that obscures the truth, a prime example, the phrase, quote, “climate change contrarian,” found both in The New York Times and on the BBC to describe Myron Ebell, Trump’s EPA transition chief.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A climate contrarian is probably how we can best describe him.
BOB GARFIELD: Actually, a contrarian is someone who rejects popular opinion. Ebell has called climate change a hoax and, quote, “nothing to worry about.” So a more accurate term would be “climate change denier.” Here’s another one. A couple of listeners pointed us to the use of so-called “conversion therapy.”
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: In his past, Mike Pence has advocated for using HIV funding for gay conversion therapy.
BOB GARFIELD: The concern here is that using the term at all for a discredited and damaging practice employed against gay people is to normalize it. And you don't escape the conundrum by calling it controversial because that implies there’s a debate. And there isn't one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which brings us to an ABC News headline several of you flagged, “West Virginia Mayor Resigns after Controversial Facebook Post About Michelle Obama.” That mayor, by the way, agreed with the county official who had referred to the First Lady as a, quote, “ape in heels,” not controversial, racist.
And Anne Cossack Jones sent us a New York Times piece with the headline, “Specter of Race Shadows Jeff Sessions, Potential Trump Nominee for Cabinet.” The word “race” here is used as a stand-in for “racism” so why not just say it?
BOB GARFIELD: And then, there's this.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Trump is a favorite of the mostly-young, mostly-white men who identify as alt-right.
BOB GARFIELD: Lisa Kramer posted, “I hate the term “alt-right.” It sounds so benign, like alt-rock, as if it were right-wing politics for hipsters, instead of the deplorable ideas it promotes. In fact, overwhelmingly, listeners told us that just using the term “alt-right” is normalizing.
In response to this very problem, the AP this week advised reporters not to use the term without defining it because, quote, “It is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience.”
JOHN McWHORTER: I understand where that idea comes from, but I don't think it's true. I think what we’re forgetting is that there is always a slippage between the form of language and its meaning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's John McWhorter who teaches linguistics at Columbia University and is author of the new book, Words on the Move.
JOHN McWHORTER: And here we are today, having a rampant and useful conversation where all of us, at least within a certain educated circle, at this point, are saying the alt-right is not some faceless group of people, that they are white nationalists and that we ought to realize that. And to the extent that I think people in a certain context tend to worry that the people, quote, unquote, "out there” won't know. I'm genuinely not sure what the danger is here. Let's say that somebody decides to investigate the alt-right, whether they’re all for what they find or whether they’re against it, they're not gonna miss what the alt-right is about. They’re not about, you know, breeding aquarium fish or something like that. It's very rapidly settling in that we know what alt-right really means, and I guarantee you, Brooke, that in about 15 years they're gonna have to come up with some different name because of the typical euphemism treadmill. They’re gonna start calling themselves “the progressives of the future” or something -
- to mask the meaning that we all understand alt-right has.
One other thing. How many things is the left gonna tell America it can't say? I think we need to be very judicious at this point because I think we've seen that a certain segment of America gets tired of it. Whether that's right or wrong, in this case, let’s just leave it alone because alt-right will have a nasty smell sooner, rather than later. We’ve done our job.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: However, you have been critical of the newfound prevalence of another term, “white supremacy” and “white supremacist.”
JOHN McWHORTER: Because I think that there really is a problem with overusing the term “white supremacy.” Now, yes, there are white supremacists and they should be called it, but there is some language policing that we need when it gets to the point that someone who wants to call somebody a racist but knows that there are certain accretions on that term lately, that there are many people who are set to push back against it, they say “supporter of white supremacy” instead. And notice, I didn’t say “white supremacist” but it’s the same thing if you say somebody is a supporter of white supremacy.
The problem with that is that words do have associations. And, let's face it, “white supremacy” makes you think of a black man hanging from a tree. And sometimes you’re gonna say it. Say it to David Duke, fine with me. But to say that is not something that you do when you're just saying that you disagree with some column someone wrote or you disagree with someone's take on reparations for slavery. Use it judiciously because not only does it cheapen the term but, frankly, Brooke, and I don't know whether we’re supposed to care about this, it's mean. It’s just unduly mean to throw that at innocent people, when it’s not necessary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is this your version of Godwin's law? You know, the discussion is over when the Holocaust and Hitler get invoked?
JOHN McWHORTER: Yes, it's lazy. Often, you don't want be pushed back against, you get tired of it. If you say “Holocaust” everybody shuts down. I would say until about 10 minutes ago, if you say “racist” everybody shuts down, but “racist” is fraying. Just as “racism” replaced “being prejudiced,” - maybe about 30 years ago I remember when I was a kid it was “you’re prejudiced.” Now, it’s “you’re racist.” It was, “you’re a male chauvinist pig, and it became “you’re sexist.” We always have to recycle these terms.
The new way of saying “racist” cannot be that you’re somebody who wouldn't have minded people being lynched and that you wish that we went back to separate water fountains.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, if “racist” and “prejudiced” have become so diluted that they don't pack the same punch, we do need to find a term that does?
JOHN McWHORTER: You know what I use when I write and I'm trying to connote what “racist” meant about 25 years ago? I don't think this is the perfect solution but I say “bigoted.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That doesn't pack much of a punch.
JOHN McWHORTER: But at least [LAUGHS] “bigoted” is better than implying that you didn't think slavery was such a bad thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, we started this whole series of segments talking about all kinds of normalizations in the media since the election, so let's talk about the word “normalize,” which is suddenly everywhere, especially on this program.
JOHN McWHORTER: You know what's neat about “normalize”? It's that “normalize” is coming to be used more by people left of center then right of center. And so, technically we think of “normalize” as meaning to render normal. I’m sure that's what you’d find in the dictionary. But really, especially lately, what we mean by “normalize” is that Trump has normalized a certain kind of expression. It’s a left word and there are many words that we think of as having these rather neutral meanings when, actually, it's becoming more a New Yorker reader, NPR listener’s word than somebody who prefers the National Review. And so, that's also true of “offended” - “that's offensive, that offends me.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The word on the right, I think, is “outrage,” “I’m outraged.”
JOHN McWHORTER: Exactly, it's less likely –
- for a person who’s on the left to say that I'm outraged. You are offended.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A conservative phrase that's been invoked over recent years many, many times is “politically correct.”
JOHN McWHORTER: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There you've seen a word that was supposed to mean one thing come to mean something else.
JOHN McWHORTER: Originally, “politically correct” was what Stalinists would accuse one another of in arguments, the idea being that you are adhering so closely to Marxist doctrine that you weren’t thinking about what would happen to the individual human being. The American new left took on “politically correct” as a rather arched-eyebrow, witty way of saying, fitting the beliefs that we know many people don't share but we kind of know that ours are correct, at least here in this living room.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
JOHN McWHORTER: So, you know, not liking Nixon, you know, believing in a woman's right to choose, etc. So I first heard it from a roommate in the early ‘80s, where he was talking about his brother and his brother having taught him what was - and this was a very arched-eyebrow kind of guy – he said, what’s politically correct and everybody in the room kind of warmly giggled. But 10 years later, the right was tired of people on the left chuckling warmly about what was politically correct and they abbreviated it, savagely, to “PC” and started making fun of people who were that smug in their beliefs, to the point that now that person who’s left of center will often say, I'm not PC, when, frankly, they have all of the views that my roommate and his brother had [LAUGHS] in 1984, but it’s been transmogrified into a slur in the same way as “feminism” has, in some quarters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And on the right, it’s used as a permission slip to say things that are not normal to invoke that word.
JOHN McWHORTER: Yeah, and so the word ends up having an even quirkier history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
JOHN McWHORTER: And that’s why now we talk about “woke.” “Woke” is the new PC –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
JOHN McWHORTER: - because since you can’t say you’re PC, now you’re woke and, quote, unquote, we all know what that means. I’m sure people will be making fun of “woke” in 20 years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I guess “woke” comes from you’ve woken up-
JOHN McWHORTER: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - you’re enlightened.
JOHN McWHORTER: You are, you are woken. And, you know, it’s ancient. That was black street slang as far back as 1962. And then, from what I hear, on the right, apparently, “woke” is the red pill; you've taken the red pill from The Matrix.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
JOHN McWHORTER: I’ve never heard anybody on the left say that. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So what’s the solution to a word that no longer means what it was intended to mean, leaving maybe a, a hole for a word that does?
JOHN McWHORTER: You know, Brooke, I honestly think that we need to get used to words needing to be replaced like that and to expect it. I think in these times we look at the way words keep changing in that way, that “cripple” becomes “handicapped” becomes “disabled,” and so on, and we, we roll our eyes and we say, well, what’s that all about? That's all about that any word is gonna rust up and eventually we’re gonna need something else. It’s because we have these negative views of, if I may, the disabled person, that are always gonna settle down on the term like gnats or rust. Only when the thought changes will there not need to be this recycling of terms. And the recycling itself, alone, does not change the thought. It just outruns it for a while.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: John, thank you so much.
JOHN McWHORTER: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: John McWhorter teaches linguistics at Columbia University and is author of Words on the Move and the upcoming Talking Back, Talking Black.