Language matters. When the media (or sometimes progressives) use language that indirectly supports the right-wing narrative, it obscures truth and impedes political persuasion. Here are five egregious but common uses of language by the news media:
(1) MIGRANT—Overwhelmingly, the people who currently seek to travel from Central America to the United States are “refugees,” not “migrants.”
A “refugee,” according to international law, “is a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country,” Right now, people are fleeing for their lives from the violent Northern Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. In fact, the U.S. is just one of many countries where they are seeking asylum.
The media tries to pass off “migrant” as a neutral word encompassing many types of people at the border, but that’s not how Americans understand the term. People think a “migrant” is someone who voluntarily travels to another country for economic advantage, e.g., for a job. This is a reasonable definition since “migrant worker” has always been understood to mean someone who voluntarily moves from place to place for work, especially a farmworker who harvests crops. The Central Americans who currently seek to enter the U.S. do not fit that definition.
This is important because if you name or describe people as refugees, then Americans embrace them. For example, a Monmouth poll found that 70 percent believe they “should be given the opportunity to enter the country if they meet certain requirements, such as showing they were persecuted in their home country and not having a criminal record.” In contrast, there’s less sympathy for “migrants” because the term implies voluntary travel.
The Trump policy toward refugees is disgraceful and will go down in history as one of our nation’s darkest hours. Unless the writer or speaker intends racism, nobody should be linguistically helping Trump do his dirty work. Say “refugees” or “people seeking asylum.”
(2) BICKERING—For example, Politico recently published, “The Democrats’ revised bill would add $2.5 billion for heartland states reeling from catastrophic floods, an overture to Republicans after months of partisan bickering.”
“Bickering” means to “argue about petty or trivial matters.” The media delivers the same demeaning message when it talks about a political “spat,” a “squabble,” or an instance of “playing politics.” The subtext, which Americans fully understand, is that we should all look down on the debate and its debaters.
But there is virtually no political argument anymore that is trivial. Conservatives are trying to take health coverage from tens of millions, give trillions in tax giveaways to the rich, deny climate science, destroy the environment, wreck consumer financial protections, and devastate every kind of employment protection or social program. Blocking this extreme regressive agenda is crucial and heroic, not “bickering.”
Similarly, the media decries “partisanship,” “gridlock,” “Congress” or “Washington” when only one party is at fault. For example, only one side is destroying the longstanding rules and procedures of the U.S. Senate.
Both-siderism is a way for reporters to weasel out of doing their jobs, which is supposed to be explaining an issue and truthfully pointing out who’s doing what to whom. Why do Americans have such unfavorable views of elected officials who stand up and fight? One reason is that attacking politics and politicians has been the media’s favorite hobby for decades.
(3) POPULIST (when referring to right-wingers)—Populism is a movement that sides with average people against the rich and powerful. Sure, there are some bizarre right-wing extremists who claim to be populists, but the claim is demonstrably false.
Trump and his confederates support the rich. The top one percent made out like bandits from the Trump tax cut. The Administration’s budget and regulatory proposals strongly favor the rich. And the rich, of course, fund both Trump and his agenda.
Perhaps there are right-wing populists in Europe, but in the United States any such rhetoric is just a pack of lies which should not be repeated, much less legitimized, by truth-seeking reporters.
(4) NATIONALIST—Racism is not “nationalism,” and using that word helps whitewash an ugly, ignorant set of beliefs.
When we say that a German or French citizen is a “nationalist,” it isn’t a pretty description but at least it makes some sense—it means such people are bigots based on their nation’s historic ethnicity. But the United States does not have a national ethnicity except, perhaps, Native Americans.
White is not a nationality. There is no White heritage, no White culture. White Americans are the products of many cultures, none of which are represented by hate speech or Confederate symbols. Saying “nationalist” merely repeats a right-wing code word that is designed to make evil sound like patriotism. And how does anybody reconcile the use of “nationalist” to describe people who work hand-in-hand with a foreign power—Russia?
At least the mainstream media finally rejected the term “Alt-Right.” When will they recognize that “nationalist” is the same thing?
(5) LIBERAL—Hardly any left-of-center political organizations or leaders call themselves “liberal.” We are pretty uniformly calling ourselves “progressive” and have done so now for decades. So why does the media keep calling us “liberals”?
There is no question that “progressive” is not only accurate, it’s a political advantage. A poll by the Pew Research Center comparing common ideological terms found that progressive is the most positive political label in America. Conservative is the second most popular political brand while liberal is substantially less popular.
This is in part because right wingers have tarnished “liberal.” In part, it’s because left-leaning groups have successfully promoted “progressive.” For example, there is no Liberal Caucus in Congress—it’s called the Progressive Caucus.
Everyone should say “progressive.” There is really no “liberal” movement anymore.