Ever since I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s piece in the New Yorker, I have been trying to answer the call that she presents so movingly and forcefully in this essay. As someone who has often bristled at euphemisms (even as a kid they made me feel uncomfortable), I am immediately sympathetic to her argument that we should stop using political euphemisms like “alt-right” and “climate contrarian” because they obscure what these people are actually doing and saying. Especially since I study literature and teach writing, I recognize the power of language to shape people’s actions and thoughts. So her point is well taken: if we care about truth (not to mention justice), we should testify to this truth by using words that reflect the ugliness of reality. So I want to heed her command to “talk about what we are actually talking about.” But I am not sure how to talk about what we are actually talking about.
Part of the problem is that there is no consensus about what we are actually talking about. I recognize that the point of Adichie’s essay is not to try to convert anyone who supports Trump’s policies or rhetoric. But the heart of the problem, it seems to me, is that there is a group of people in the United States who feels as if they are (voluntarily or involuntarily) not part of the community that creates and uses terms like “white nationalism” and “climate change denier” because they don’t accept the premise behind them. Likewise, words like “racism” and “privilege” are being used in different ways by different communities. My impression from talking to people of good will who reject mainstream definitions of words like “racism” and “privilege” is that they feel like this language has been developed by a discourse community from which they have been excluded (or from which they have absented themselves).
When asked to defend his support for Trump in light of Trump’s misogynism and racism, one of my family members said, “Honestly, I kind of like it when he says those things because liberals have cried wolf for so long. They told me I was a racist and a misogynist for voting for Mitt Romney. So when they say it about Trump, it’s hard to believe them.” This kind of reaction is the fruit of mutually exclusive discourse.
I think if we are going to move forward with talking about what we are actually talking about, the construction of vocabulary has to be a collaborative effort. We have to be able to account for why we use the words that we use (and we have to be honest with ourselves about why we prefer some terms over others). We must make an effort to interpolate our terminology with feedback from the “other side,” as Malcolm Rivers advocates in his recent article in First Things. There has to be a kind of collaborative nuancing of terms like “white nationalism,” based on input from the right and the left, so that the term does not become so narrow or so broad that it is no longer useful for critique.
I am not advocating compromise so much as I am advocating shared discourse. Shared discourse does not necessarily mean agreement—we will probably disagree vehemently. But these disagreements can only be productive if we are speaking a shared language.