By Sylvia Stead for 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.”)
According to a Times reporter, as Mr. Spencer finished a speech in which he said that America belongs to the white race, “several audience members had their arm outstretched in a Nazi salute.” When Spencer, or perhaps another person standing near him at the front of the room – it was not clear who – shouted, “Hail the people! Hail victory!” the room shouted it back.
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.