By Sylvia Stead
The Globe and Mail
Should journalists use made-up words?
Sometimes yes. Language changes constantly, and so words such as “post-truth” and “yogalates” come into the vernacular and should be used and explained until they are well understood. (Post-truth: when emotions, beliefs and even lies trump facts as the drivers of public opinion. Yogalates: yoga and Pilates combined.)
But “alt-right”? I had a complaint this week from noted Canadian writer Marian Botsford Fraser, who called it a deceptive term. “This is not a benign descriptive adjective. It is a euphemism that apparently has been accepted by mainstream media as nothing more than an identifier or description. … To use it as such, without signalling its true meaning, is careless journalism,” she wrote in an e-mail. “In a very short time, the phrase ‘alt-right’ has become the new normal, defining the terms for a highly contentious debate, just as the phrase ‘pro-life’ does.”
According to a New Yorker magazine article in May, “alt-right” was coined by Richard Spencer, an American white nationalist who described it as “an ideology around identity, European identity.” Mr. Spencer was in the news this week praising the victory of Donald Trump at a Washington gathering of the like-minded. (On Tuesday, Mr. Trump denied that his campaign had energized the white-supremacist movement, telling The New York Times that he disavowed it. It’s worth noting, however, that a week earlier he had announced that his chief White House strategist will be Stephen Bannon, former executive chair of Breitbart News, whose website Mr. Bannon himself has described as “the platform for the alt-right.”)
A problem with the word “alt-right” is that it suggests on the surface a mere “alternative” to a right-wing philosophy. But Mr. Spencer’s own description is clear: This is a racist movement. And make no mistake, its views and positions are vile. In fact, during that same speech, he openly wondered if Jews were really people, quoted Nazi propaganda in German, and encouraged his audience to shout a Nazi-era term for the press that incorporates the word “lying” into the word “press.”
Mr. Spencer has made a point of saying that he and his followers must look respectable, and clearly the use of “alt-right” is part of that propaganda that aims to make white-supremacist beliefs and anti-Semitism less frightening.
It is a new term, used first in The Globe in July, and since then, 28 times. This includes staff news articles, columns and wire stories from news agencies including The New York Times. The vast majority of those references have described it as the “so-called ‘alt-right’ ” and included references to racism or to a white-nationalist underpinning. Here are a few examples:
1. “Mr. [Milo] Yiannopoulos has been banned from Twitter after Ghostbusters and SNL actress Leslie Jones was subjected to a campaign of racist and sexist harassment seemingly at the direction of the Breitbart writer and champion of so-called ‘alt-right’ politics on the Internet.”
2. “emerging racist ideology known as the alt-right.”
3. “‘alt-right’– a virulent right-wing movement followed by people who openly distrust non-white races, and who believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim.”
But these contextual descriptions are not always included, and the danger is that the term becomes more accepted without being understood. One Globe article called president-elect Donald Trump’s supporters distrustful of established media outlets, preferring to get their news “from alt-right websites.”
For someone seeing the term for the first time, there was no description of what it means. And that is the danger of using a propaganda term – in this case, a word deliberately chosen to be non-threatening by a white nationalist, without giving the reader a heads-up about its meaning, minus the deceptive gloss.
The note from Ms. Botford Fraser is a good reminder to journalists that not every reader knows what such a term means. In my view, the term should be avoided whenever possible; if there is no way around using it – for example, in a quote – it should always be explained in the most transparent and blunt terms.
Globe and Mail editor-in-chief David Walmsley says that The Globe must not only explain the term, but recognize more widely “how dangerous group journalistic thinking is. … The precision of language, married with facts, is the most effective weapon the journalist has to hold people to account. This is never more keenly felt than at times of polarized debate. Adjectives should be used sparingly, and only when the journalist actually knows the subject. It is too easy to slide into caricature at precisely the point the audience is seeking objectivity.”
But he notes that the term alt-right “isn’t even an adjective but a label that conveys no meaning. Legitimacy sometimes is given to words because they are used often enough. Journalists need to keep to the facts, not to easily spout self-serving and invented phrases that sometimes even aid the hiding of the true meaning.”
I leave the last word to Ms. Botford Fraser about why using the term is so dangerous: “Because it sounds cool. And intriguing, like an alternative lifestyle, but not at all dangerous. Because it glides over the hard ideology, burying the ugly words like fascist, racist, Nazi, white supremacist under a slick slogan. It’s very shrewd branding. And by just adopting it, journalists and editors become enablers.”
This column was originally published in The Globe and Mail on 25 November 2016.