I've been thinking a lot lately about the words we use, and abuse. I think it is important to use words carefully, and not fall into a trap of using words that are popular, but not helpful. I think some words are overused, and used incorrectly, which diminishes their value, meaning and impact.
To illustrate this, I'll start with two very commonly used words in our political discourse: racism and Nazi (hoo-boy, just jump right into the fire!).
Racist (racism) - I personally think this term is very much overused and often used incorrectly. By labeling large groups of people and even individuals as "racists," we diminish the true meaning of the term. Example: "people who voted for Trump are racists," or "racism was behind the actions of the Republicans in Congress." It's too easy, and leads to lazy thinking. Paint everything as racism and eventually there is nothing but racism.
We need to think about and understand the distinctions between racism and bigotry, including unintentional bigotry. Here is a short post on the topic; it's a quick and interesting read.
And here are a couple of sociological definitions of racism: "By this sociological definition, racism is about much more than race-based prejudice--it exists when race is used to create an imbalance in power and social status." (1) and, "Policies and practices favorable to a dominant group and unfavorable to another group that are systematically embedded in the form of norms in the existing structure of society."(2)
I've selected the above definitions because they talk about systemic racism, rather than individual actions. Certainly, there are many common definitions of racism that focus on the individual; however, I prefer to look at the more scientific (sociological) meanings.
The term bigotry can be defined as: "Extreme intolerance of another person’s beliefs and opinions particularly racial or religious."(3) Again, this is a sociological definition of the term. A common definition (bigot) is: "a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc., a bigoted person; especially a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group (such as a racial or religious group)" (4).
So, what's the big deal? Well, I think it is critically important for everyone to understand that there is systemic racism in our society, and also that individuals in our society, most of us in fact, are bigoted, intentionally or unintentionally, when it comes to ideas, philosophies and people not like our own. By using more specific terms, we help ourselves and others understand the sociological and political distinctions, and our discussions are more focused. It is one thing to see blatant bigotry by individuals; it is another to understand how to see racism that is often hidden in plain view within our institutions.
Nazi - What is a Nazi? Standard definitions: "a member of a German political party that controlled Germany from 1933 to 1945 under Adolf Hitler," and, "an evil person who wants to use power to control and harm other people especially because of their race, religion, etc." (5). I prefer the firsts definition, rather than the second, for common usage.
I'll start this by asking you to read this short piece by Mike Godwin, the originator of Godwin's Law: “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1.” (6) In the piece, Godwin discusses the uses of the terms Nazi, Hitler and holocaust in on-line discussions, and specifically regarding Trump.
Once again I argue that using the term Nazi when discussing Trump and Trumpism is not productive, and is actually counterproductive (with the possible exception of asking the question: "Is Trump a Nazi?"). The term is overused, and once again is, in my opinion, a lazy shortcut that doesn't help move a discussion forward. I do agree that there is great value in having the discussion about the conditions in America and American politics in the early 21st century, compared to those in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. There are certainly similarities, but there are also very distinct and important differences. To simply label Trump a Nazi is not productive.
I prefer to use the terms fascist and fascism. Hitler was a fascist, and many other national leaders have been or are fascists. These are more scientific (there I go again!) and lead to a discussion of political trends and positions and philosophies. Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst, has a good column on this topic. He discusses the criteria of fascism, and concludes that Donald Trump is a proto-fascist, rather than a full-blown fascist; I agree with this conclusion. In my view Trump is not a Nazi; he does not belong to a Nazi party. I have posted to this blog about the trend towards fascism in America since the administration of George W. Bush, and Donald Trump is the current embodiment, and the most serious and dangerous person with fascist tendencies to be elected to be President of the United States.
Conclusion - So dear reader, think and talk about this one. Let's be careful with words. Let's be intentional with words so that we are very clear what we mean, and we can move discussion forward. It is easy, too easy, to simply use labels as a conclusion. It is much more difficult, and also much more important to get beyond labels and look at what's behind the curtain.
Notes and sources: