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With Racist Politics, You Have to Watch Your Language

By Steve Stajich

I’m sorry that you missed it. While not as dramatic or socially relevant as the events that precipitated it, there was a discussion at our dinner table earlier this week that was a roller-coaster ride with wild twists and turns… of language.

Specifically I presented my argument that one could, if so desired, paint white supremacists and the KKK and neo Nazis with the wide brush of “they’re stupid.” Others thought it made my discussion of these groups too reductive by insisting that the only thing powering the views and actions of said groups was their lack of intelligence: They are struggling to understand the world with such limited abilities of perception and lackluster educational backgrounds that you could justify labeling them “stupid.” You know, Nazis. In the year 2017. 72 years after the end of World War II… which I believe the Nazis lost.

So then we spent some time dissecting the word “ignorant,” which I believe implies that – with some real effort at learning and understanding – said ignorance could be removed. But what if people make a choice to ignore facts, science, the march forward of humankind and most of the rational and real world? And they hold on to their severely wrong-headed choice forever? Isn’t choosing or selecting ignorance… stupid?

I think by now you get some sense of how this debate went down and I’ll confess to you that one of my weapons in any argument is fatigue, which I hope isn’t setting in for you before I’m even halfway through this column. But yes, I like to wear down my opponents with analogies and examples that create friction when rubbed against their precepts. That, or we just agree to move on to dessert.

What we settled on, although I think the argument will come up again, is that I might be better off using the term “mentally defective” rather than “stupid.” It acknowledges that the “views” of white supremacist groups are bigoted and illogical to the degree that they strongly suggest some inability to mentally process, uh, much of anything. While I like the slightly more scientific sound of “mentally defective,” I immediately posited that it could be used in court as a defense. Specifically, would the man who drove his car into the crowd in Charlottesville plead mental defect and not be sentenced to a fuller charge of homicide/murder/assassination/terrorism…well, now you see how language matters in law.

What brought the entire discussion to our table was the event of news organizations referring to those involved in Charlottesville’s dark events that were not white supremacists as “anti-racist demonstrators.” (My hyphen, for clarity.) It was stunning: One simple adjustment of language and now there were two clashing “views” in Charlottesville: Racists and Non-Racists. The language was giving the white supremacists the benefit or credibility of expressing a “view,” such that anyone else there who didn’t share that view belonged to the “anti” view group. They were no longer simply decent people who didn’t want hateful white supremacy spew flowing through their city; they were “anti-racists.”

I might understand that in reporting on an event such as Charlottesville one had to make concessions in the interest of clarity. But is there a cumulative impact in adjusting language? Does the term “alt right” clarify or obfuscate what those on the “alt right” are really about? During the aforementioned dinner discussion, I wondered aloud if, in 2017, it was necessary for any woman to say she was “feminist” in order to frame comments about equal pay for equal work or discrimination against women. I do not expect black friends to feel as though they need to tell me they are “anti-racist.” I suppose more to my point, if black friends did feel as though they needed to tell me they were anti-racist I would feel I had failed them at some point.

Once again, the 21st century begets developments that seem to be about reclaiming what was once fully understood and agreed upon by all. We now have to argue and fight for clean water and air fit to breathe, which I suppose makes us “anti-destroying the Earth.” Public education, once the best and most visible representation of what the United States was about, is now another entitlement fighting for its life against a Secretary of Education who has never worked in a school or school system.

And now there are those determined to turn the crank on racism, defending statues representing the Confederacy and reviving that really groovy vibe of Nazi genocide, and it appears I must tell you I am an anti-racist because perhaps somehow you won’t know if I don’t identify myself.

Well, I won’t do that. Instead, please just assume I am anti all the things you’d assume I was anti. And not because I’m a “leftist”, which is another term of art showing up in reporting about decent people wanting to shut down Nazis. In the first few days of this past week, it became necessary for the company manufacturing Tiki patio lamps to release a statement clarifying that they deplored the views of white supremacists who marched toting their products. They had to make clear that they didn’t support Nazis… in 2017… 72 years after the end of World War II.

Steve Stajich, Columnist

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