George Orwell, the "Alt-Right," and the Importance of Words
Today I read perhaps the most important article I’ve come across in the month since Donald Trump won the Presidency. It’s short, dull, utilitarian, and I wish it had been published far far sooner.
The Associated Press not only helps news organizations report the news but it helps set and maintain standards for the ways in which they do it. This particular article deals specifically with how news media should treat the term “alt-right.”
The short essay begins by defining the alt-right as follows:
The “alt-right” or “alternative right” is a name currently embraced by some white supremacists and white nationalists to refer to themselves and their ideology, which emphasizes preserving and protecting the white race in the United States in addition to, or over, other traditional conservative positions such as limited government, low taxes and strict law-and-order [...] Its members reject the American democratic ideal that all should have equality under the law regardless of creed, gender, ethnic origin or race.
The clear definition of the term is useful. The purpose of the essay, however, is to criticize the news media’s general tendency to allow the term “alt-right” to obscure the actual individual ideas, statements, and actions of its proponents. That purpose is what makes this perhaps the most important article I’ve read since the election.
Politics is both dirty and lofty. While a great deal of discussion of politics explores the wilds of deal-making and machinery of government, what I enjoy most is that it also consists of somewhat in-depth discussion of ideas. Those sorts of discussions are what make politics fascinating but they’re also incredibly dangerous. The recent overuse and poor use of the term “alt-right” has laid that danger bare.
The most striking passage in the essay comes when the author contends, somewhat matter-of-factly, that the term itself may “exist primarily as a public-relations device.” He goes on to state that the purveyors of the “alt-right” ideology refer to it as such specifically to obscure what that ideology actually is and make their white nationalism and bigotry somewhat more palatable to the mainstream public.
That is the danger of discussing of ideas. Or, more precisely, that is the danger of discussing ideologies. Conversations like these necessarily exist in the abstract and that leads to considerable difficulty in summoning words that actually describe the ideas at hand. The tendency of people who live in the orbit of those ideologies to develop shorthand for their ideas, both for their own convenience and to market their ideas to others, only exacerbates that difficulty.
Far-right, Radical left, Moderate, Liberal, Conservative, Libertarian, Classical Liberal, Anarchist, Neo-conservative, Neo-liberal, Progressive, Populist, Nationalist, Globalist, Socialist, Democratic Socialist, Communitarian, free-market, economic justice, social justice, identity politics, equality, opportunity, school choice, pro-choice, pro-life, pro-gun, gun rights, right to work, right to organize, Clintonite, Sandersism, Trumpism, Ryanesque …
Some of these terms mean nothing. More important, however, are the ones that mean something. Not anything big or particular or descriptive. But something. Most of these terms carry just enough conventional meaning that they conjure a feeling in the person who hears them. They are sufficiently vague, however, to allow person who uses them to assign any specific meaning that suits their purposes.
To one person a “conservative” is prudent and responsible but to the next he is regressive and authoritarian. To one person “liberal” is a principled commitment to social justice and equality, and to the next it describes reckless, intrusive, high tax, welfare. Words like these serve no concrete purpose but to obscure individual action, speech, ideas, and sentiment. They push away particulars and leave a gaping void that every person involved can fill with whatever connotation they like.
I, and literally everyone who discusses politics to any degree and for any reason, use these terms constantly. It’s inevitable that we begin to use them more deliberately. To obscure more purposefully. I don’t really want ultra-high taxes, I just believe in democratic socialism. I don’t want to gut environmental regulations and defund important services, I just believe in fiscal conservatism. Once our guard is down, the harmless political obfuscation can start to mask anything, and we barely notice when neo-nazis and white supremacists ask us to call them the “alt-right.”
I’m annoyingly persistent in my thumping of George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell is far more famous and considered far more prophetic for his chilling fictional totalitarianism, but his real prophecy is tacked onto this brief and humorous tirade about the poor writing of his contemporaries. Orwell links vague language to insincerity and vague thought. He argues that those who avoid describing action and images are being deliberately evasive. Though he has a lengthy list of examples, he takes particular issue with the word “democracy.”
It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.
It’s that conscious dishonesty that recalls the “alt-right” and the Associated Press. The A.P. urges media to avoid using single terms to describe this group’s ideology in whole and instead to focus on its actions. Its statements, donations, and affiliations. They encourage pushing aside the vague and isolating and describing the concrete with ruthless specificity.
We live in a political environment that is increasingly subject to constant distraction in which thousands of terms have been thrown around even as their meanings have broadened or changed. When dangerous ideologies and unscrupulous people are gathering power, the lesson of this A.P. essay is perhaps the most important one we can learn, in spite of its seemingly narrow focus. Demand precision and refuse to allow politicians or their defenders to define themselves or you with ideological jargon.
Orwell ends his essay with the following:
“Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties from conservatives to anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
“Politics and the English Language” is less than twenty pages long and is the most important essay on politics that I’ve ever read. Politicians, interest groups, lobbyists, political partisans, activists, and policy-makers have real power to do things, but their support often rests on their words. How they’re able to describe (or avoid describing) what they do is as important as what they do in the first place. Reconcile the two.