September 11, 2017

The Nuances of Naming

B Raskoffy Sally Raskoff

The alt-right. White nationalists. White supremacists. Nazis.

Naming groups is part of what we do so that we can know who is who and what they are about. It’s also important to identify who is included as “us” and who is considered “them.”

Knowing your in-groups and out-groups facilitates our social interactions in positive, neutral, and negative ways. Reference groups operate on a less personal scale than in-groups and out-groups, as they are typically large scale and operate on a national or international level.

The groups I listed at the beginning of this blog have been in the news, some recently, some for decades. To many people, they are all the same thing. To others, there are nuances that may set them apart, although most would agree that all these groups have the same basic goals.

The alt-right named itself, as have the other groups in that list. Their beliefs coalesce around a pro-white ideology that is obviously racist and anti-Semitic. Alt-right functions like an umbrella term for those groups listed above who all have that ideology in common.

The “alt-left” has recently been invented to describe, well, it’s not quite clear as I write this. It is supposed to belong to the other end of the political spectrum than the alt-right, as the terms sound similar. However, there is no clearly organized “alt-left,” groups have not yet called themselves that, so they are not terms on an equivalent plane. In fact, members of the alt-right have advanced the term “alt-left” to mainstream their own status and goals, and to create a “them” to rally against.

There are (at least) two issues here, sociologically speaking. The importance of who names whom and the euphemisms used to make negative things seem palatable.

Who does the naming? When a group names itself, that label has legitimacy. When another group or entity labels or uses words against another group, the use of those words typically reinforce the power hierarchy and further disempowers those labeled groups. Hispanic, a descriptor invented by the federal government has a very different meaning than Latino, a group who claimed the name for themselves. Other groups have reclaimed pejorative descriptors to claim the power of those words for themselves and deny others the ability to denigrate them. The term Queer is one example; can you think of any others?

What meanings do euphemisms obscure? When we use particular words for difficult things that could be described more plainly or descriptively, who benefits? When we say “alt-right” but really mean white supremacists, do people pay as much attention? When we hear “alternative facts,” do people acknowledge that that term really means lies? Can you think of more?

So many euphemisms have to do with the military or government. When we hear “collateral damage” in wartime, are we concerned about those who died? “Boots on the ground,” means people sent into combat and into harm’s way. “Capital punishment” is the death penalty. “Natural resources” are those things that are part of the earth but that we exploit for our own purposes: gas, oil, coal, trees, animals, and water. “Negative growth” is an economic decline. “Liberate” is to overthrow another government. A Superfund site is a program yet it has become a word that we use for a location that has been polluted with toxic waste yet we do not just say toxic waste dump.

Why do we use euphemisms? I wrote a blog post about the social significance of euphemisms, although I had focused on the everyday and personal uses of such. Shifting the focus to the societal and cultural level, and within the current political discourse, we can see that using words like “alt-right” is an effort to legitimize that which had not previously been acceptable in our nation. Since the current president of the United States is fond of using these terms, especially in his off-script remarks, these euphemisms have been elevated to a place in society that some may accept as legitimate. We have known that we have American neo-Nazis for decades, but they were assumed to be a fringe group.

However, there are consequences of using words that don’t sound racist when they actually are. White supremacist’s sentiments expressed by those in the highest levels of government – and witnessing them used overtly – cannot be missed or ignored. The ongoing protests have brought these issues to our attention.

Our democratic society depends on the people staying civically engaged. I will end here with a quote from Karl Popper, a noted social theorist who said in 1945:

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

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