If It Talks Like a Fascist…
January 27, 2019 12:04 PM   Subscribe

Our Increasingly Fascist Public Discourse. Jason Stanley: “Though 'fascism' generally evokes images of jack-booted thugs and mass rallies, fascist movements first politicize language. And, judging by the arguments and vocabulary now regularly used by mainstream politicians and thinkers in the US and Europe, their strategy is bearing fruit.”
Yet for all of the focus on these leaders’ lies and violent rhetoric, not nearly enough attention has been devoted to the subtler applications of far-right rhetoric in recent years. History shows that illiberal movements can advance their agendas not just through elections, but also by infiltrating the common parlance of political debate. And as we’ll see, the evidence today suggests that far-right “populists,” authoritarians, and, indeed, fascists have been self-consciously waging a battle of words in order to win the war of ideas.

...

As we have seen, the objective of fascist metapolitical dictionaries like those by Faye and Friberg is to insinuate innocent-sounding terms into public discourse in order to make once-unacceptable anti-democratic ideologies seem benign, thereby lessening public opposition to, if not licensing, anti-democratic action. When the fundamental democratic principle of equal respect is recast as “political correctness,” it is no surprise that people would become more accepting of politicians calling entire immigrant groups “rapists” and “snakes.” When politicians start calling immigrants and refugees “illegal aliens,” it is no surprise that people become more accepting of treating them like they are less than human, snatching their children and consigning them to cages and squalid camps.

I am a philosopher of language and a linguist by training, as well as an epistemologist and a cognitive scientist. I know a lot about what is known about language and thought, and have a good sense of what remains unknown. As matters stand, we can see when certain ways of talking and thinking are gaining a wider purchase, but we have no obvious way of calculating the effects on individuals and society.

Moreover, we do not know if it is possible to adopt the language of hysteria about leftists, unions, Marxism, gender, and immigrants without also adopting other parts of the fascist package. We do not know if fascism is a holistic language game. Here, the best guides come from our own history. Intellectuals from Klemperer to James Baldwin have warned us about the costs of defeat in the semantic war, which we lose by adopting the vocabulary of our enemies.
Via Jonathan Korman (@miniver,) who continues: "Jason Stanley’s point about fascists’ usual Malthusian eschatology of strife between peoples over resources coming true in environmental collapse this century rhymes with Charlie Stross’ chilling speculation along similar lines"

Charles Stross: Some notes on the worst-case scenario
posted by homunculus (33 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 
Author Jason Stanley (@jasonintrator) on his piece: "My newest piece in @ProSyn is about semantic warfare. It concerns the way in which pieces of terminology slip into mainstream liberal discourse, and potentially corrupt ways of thinking to legitimize positions that classical liberals themselves find abhorrent. It's subtle."
posted by homunculus at 12:10 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


A bit Sapir-Whorf, I think. Klemperer was also writing at the same time as Orwell, who had similar, and more recently discredited, ideas about how language affects, though.


>>In The Language of the Third Reich, Victor Klemperer, a Jewish scholar who miraculously survived World War II in Germany, describes how Nazism “permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms, and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously.” As a result of this inculcation, Klemperer observed, “language does not simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it.”
posted by JamesBay at 12:35 PM on January 27 [10 favorites]


Control-F 'Luntz'. Not disappointed.
posted by el io at 12:41 PM on January 27 [3 favorites]


Just thinking a bit here, but how much does the discourse ("politicized language") affect behaviour, or how much does existing culture affect the discourse. Could it be that the Fascist discourse we are experiencing right now is merely a reflection of the actual values of the dominant culture in the US, Canada, the UK, Europe and Australia (locales where Fascism is making a comeback)?

In Canada, the US and Australia, for example, white supremacy and subjugation (with freedom and liberty for some) is a cornerstone of each of our national histories.

If you are not part of the dominant culture in these countries, would you say that "Fascism" (or white ethnic chauvinism, etc) every went away?
posted by JamesBay at 12:48 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


Lakoff has been talking about this forever too.

There is a guy here in Illinois, Dan Proft, who does something similar but on a much lower scale. The sheer number of suburban towns the guy basically 'runs' is incredible.
posted by indianbadger1 at 12:56 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]




I remember listening to 45 for the first time during the second debate and it became clear to me immediately why he virtually hypnotizes some people. He repeats certain key phrases, uses a lot of emotionally freighted language (everything is "terrible" or "wonderful") ...

That "gift," if you want to call it that, is a positive Trojan horse when you sneak in the poison words described by Stanley. Except that a lot of people are sneaking them in, not just 45.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 1:49 PM on January 27 [4 favorites]


I've always been a bit skeptical of Sapir-Whorf-ish hypotheses, including this one, because it seems to kinda punt on the whole causation issue. (And also because I think the whole bit about not being able to think something that you can't express linguistically is bunk; most of us have had the experience of feeling something that we don't have words for, or that language is limiting -- if language was the determining factor in what we could comprehend, it doesn't seem like that should be possible.)

Anyway, within the context of modern U.S. cultural politics, it seems simpler to assume that the causation goes the other way: that culture shapes language, and language provides visible evidence of that change. Which isn't to say that there aren't feedback loops -- it's not entirely a one-way street -- but if "fascist" terminology is becoming commonplace, it's because people have become comfortable with (what some define as) fascism. (I also have some sideeye for the overuse of the term 'fascism' for any sort of generalized unpleasant authoritarianism, but that's an argument for another day. I'm happy to stipulate for the purposes of discussion that the emergent populist-authoritarian trends in the US and parts of Europe are close enough.)

But when the author points to stuff like Gingrich's 1990 list of good-words/bad-words, I think it gives Gingrich too much credit to suggest that he was really directing or controlling society in any large sense; I think the simpler explanation is to read his work as descriptive: he's telling us something -- something important -- about the zeitgeist of 1990, but his control over it was probably a lot less than he wished it was.

Gingrich, like many politicians, had a sensitivity to the zeitgeist; his success depended on his ability to read the tea leaves of public opinion and know where to apply pressure to achieve his ends. That's the art of politics. But the tools for actually shaping public opinion are blunt and not nearly as effective as I think they are often credited with being. (In 1990, especially; today's social media is more advanced, but it still gets given too much credit, IMO. The offhand comment of a respected coworker is worth a whole lot of social media impressions.)

I think this is important because if you really believe in the Sapir-Whorf stuff, then controlling language becomes this overwhelmingly important issue. I think it's a tarpit. Conservatives love to dicker over language. It makes their adversaries seem trivial, whiny, and censorious, while they get to be the champions of free expression, sometimes even martyrs. And while the left gets drawn into this unwinnable slog of a battle, they continue to do real damage elsewhere, undoing regulations and defunding agencies and robbing formerly-public resources for their personal gain. I think the effort is better spent -- and the public's limited attention span is better directed -- there, rather than on litigating language.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:52 PM on January 27 [8 favorites]


I think this is important because if you really believe in the Sapir-Whorf stuff, then controlling language becomes this overwhelmingly important issue. I think it's a tarpit. Conservatives love to dicker over language.

Liberals too "dicker" over language, that's a big part of why people now refer to "the n word" instead of using a racial epithet. To suggest that change isn't significant in itself is way off to me as if using epithets as standard descriptive phrasing had no effect on how people thought.

I think people fall back on the allegedly discredited Sapir-Whorf studies too quickly as justification for language having little to no effect in how we frame our thoughts. It misunderstands Sapir-Whorf by suggesting words are like magic in how they change our thinking, making it impossible to frame ideas in different ways. That isn't it at all. It is a question of how ideas are framed within the culture and how readily or easily they can be rebutted using arguments that also find purchase within the social mindset.

Barthes wrote about this in Mythologies among other places, and he described the Trump/right manner of speaking and framing discussion as well as anyone. He laid out the kefaybe dynamic and how language and images help create and maintain mythic structures people use to understand the world. Trump, for example, has demonized Mexicans, Central and South Americans, as well as Muslims, linking them together a connected threat to US security, meaning white safety. Talk about the border has dominated the news leading it to be seen as a defining issue of the time while also shifting the discussion away from things like the Black Lives Matter movement and, to a lesser degree, the Me Too movement. Liberals push back in their attempts to keep the frame around white/male privilege as significant and have some success in doing so by attacking the myths that language helped perpetrate in how the culture saw those issues.

The pull between obfuscation and revelation of the controlling structures in how we see and understand the world is of central importance to any attempt to better it. You have to understand how things work in order to fix them, but even Barthes admitted the tools at our disposal to reach clarity may not be sufficient given how we construct our thoughts in a social context. That's an extremely crude reduction of the subject of course, there are many, many essays and studies on the subject that refine the issue in much finer detail that are well worth reading.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:41 PM on January 27 [13 favorites]


An example is when Republicans began referring to "taxpayers" rather than "citizens." It was intended to alter how individuals think of their relation to government. And it worked.
posted by sjswitzer at 2:46 PM on January 27 [13 favorites]


A more positive example might be the phrase emotional labor. The phrase provided a way for people to better understand the total effect of the work being done largely unnoticed, in no small part because that work either had no real description or was broken down into smaller elements that made it seem less daunting as a whole. The phrase opened eyes because it captured the essence of a way of life that had been treated as invisible or not worth noting by the culture.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:08 PM on January 27 [5 favorites]


would you say that "Fascism" (or white ethnic chauvinism, etc) every went away?

I don't think the colonisation of North America was exactly a Fascist project. But if nothing else, it illustrates the fact that the overarching political/philosophical models are irrelevant to the people who are being displaced or exterminated.

That's why (for example) the muslim-isn't-a-race gambit is such bullshit: no, it isn't, but leaving aside the fact that most Muslims are nonwhite, is there a material difference to the victims of Islamophobia? Of course not.
posted by klanawa at 3:39 PM on January 27 [3 favorites]


today's social media is more advanced, but it still gets given too much credit,

I disagree. It is the sheer number (trollfarms and bots) and ability to project psyop/propaganda power, regardless of geographic proximity. Like how the ICBM changed the game for projecting military power. Somewhere up thread radio as used in Germany before and during WW2. Social media has no range restrictions. That alone I think is cause for serious alarm and gives me the heebie jeebies. Any lost soul is three clicks from fascist sales pitches.
posted by vrakatar at 4:42 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]


I've always been a bit skeptical of Sapir-Whorf-ish hypotheses, including this one, because it seems to kinda punt on the whole causation issue. (And also because I think the whole bit about not being able to think something that you can't express linguistically is bunk; most of us have had the experience of feeling something that we don't have words for, or that language is limiting -- if language was the determining factor in what we could comprehend, it doesn't seem like that should be possible.)

I don't believe in Sapir-Whorf in a purely constraining sense. In fact it seems clear to me that thought can lead language and whip the latter into new carrying capacities. But I'm cautiously confident Sapir-Whorf is true in the sense that existing language provides *some* cognitive shortcuts to certain concepts... but not others. That some terminology is a neatly packed conceptual briefcase for convenient handoffs. That some language is a channel -- possibly a literal neural channel -- guiding thoughts down a path. If nothing else I'd bet the more often that some topics are discussed together or even next to each other become easier to associate and then connect them because that's probably more or less how words acquire meaning for us.

And tautologically, the thoughts that can't be expressed linguistically can't have social currency. The thoughts that are only clumsily encoded/decoded probably can't either. Thoughts that are reducible to a soundbite, bon mot, or proverb, on the other hand, are near-reflexive collective thought at the social level, whether it's "DTMFA" or "what happens in Vegas" or "separate is never equal" or "build the wall!"

The idea that language reflects as much (or more) than it shapes thinking is a reasonable and necessary hypothesis to consider. The idea that Newt Gingrich is less effective than he'd like to believe and rode a wave rather than made one is one I'd dearly like to believe (and credible enough). But my money's on language's capacity to shape thinking, especially in some temperaments.
posted by wildblueyonder at 5:01 PM on January 27 [7 favorites]


Intellectuals from Klemperer to James Baldwin have warned us about the costs of defeat in the semantic war, which we lose by adopting the vocabulary of our enemies.

Buried in here is a good chunk of the reasoning behind deplatforming. If the language of Fascism is infectious and mind-altering, then it doesn't matter whether any given Fascist has their ass handed to them in a "debate." The point is for the pathogen to find a receptive host, and it will, at any opportunity.

All the Joe Rogans and Bill Mahers pissing their pants over equal time are more effective vectors than even StormFront, whose readers are few and, by definition, already infected.
posted by klanawa at 5:08 PM on January 27 [8 favorites]


I know YouTube us a hive of villainy, but there s a few rhetoricians on there, explaining the current fascist playbook
posted by eustatic at 5:26 PM on January 27 [4 favorites]


The word 'populist' is a very good example of this creeping discourse. How in the world can the new York Times justify that word for the likes of Bannon or the latest president? Their ideas are not populist, not popular or redistributionist. What do they have to do with Williams Jennings Bryan?

I don't have Lexus Nexis, but I don t think they would ever have misappropriated that word for Leander Perez. Perez was a segregationist and a grifter. And he was dumb enough to fight the Truman administration on oil revenues, hurting Louisiana. Why isn't 'segregationist' the term of art for the current president? That s the US political tradition he follows.
posted by eustatic at 3:34 AM on January 28 [2 favorites]


See also: David Niewert interviewed in the Guardian: ‘We've dug ourselves a really deep hole’ – David Neiwert on the rise of the far right.

David has been tracking fascist elements in the US for many years - he blogs is at orcinus & has written a number of books on the topic.
posted by pharm at 3:52 AM on January 28


One way of thinking about the Sapir-Whorf aspect of this debate: how often do you get a brand new melody stuck in your head?
posted by ropeladder at 5:19 AM on January 28


I remember there was a bit of discussion back in the GWB admin when they were first starting the DHS that the term "Homeland" in "Homeland Security" was kind of... fashy. That tying the concept of the USA as a nation to the literal land and/or soil (rather than something more conceptual like laws or aspirations or whatever) was kinda something that fascists do.
posted by mhum at 10:31 AM on January 28 [6 favorites]


> See also: David Niewert interviewed in the Guardian: ‘We've dug ourselves a really deep hole’ – David Neiwert on the rise of the far right.

Link

David has been tracking fascist elements in the US for many years - he blogs is at orcinus & has written a number of books on the topic.

He's also on Twitter, where he's more active: @DavidNeiwert
posted by homunculus at 3:14 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]




'Empire' star Jussie Smollett attacked in Chicago by men hurling homophobic and racial slurs. “'Empire' actor Jussie Smollett was assaulted in Chicago on Tuesday by two men who hurled racial and homophobic slurs at him and wrapped a rope around his neck in an attack police are investigating as a hate crime, officials said.”

They also yelled “This is MAGA country” as they left, according the the link I posted above this one.
posted by homunculus at 12:06 PM on January 29 [2 favorites]






Anil Dash (@anildash): "This is a very important thread that every elected official, and every parent, in today’s world desperately *needs* to understand."

Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__): "... Kids are regularly forced to accept or reject subtle pathways to hate from YouTube, almost always before they understand they are pathways to hate. These are not conscious decisions and they are making them regularly, without oversight from parents or companies..."
posted by homunculus at 2:07 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


One thing they'll do is flip back and forth between the connotations of what they say and the literal meaning of what they say.

It's why they keep getting moments where they were certain that the connotation was that only those other, bad people would have their face eaten. Sure, my husband doesn't have all his paperwork in order, but he's not an illegal.

Or like, "all lives matter." The literal meaning is fine, and they'll retreat to that meaning when criticized. But that literal meaning doesn't allow it to contradict "black lives matter." It's a contradiction that only comes across through connotations.
posted by RobotHero at 8:38 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


Here's a video the author of the article in the OP made for the NYTimes last October:

If You’re Not Scared About Fascism in the U.S., You Should Be: When fascism starts to feel normal, we’re all in trouble.
posted by homunculus at 6:25 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]










Journalist Rachael Pacella tweeted this this morning: "As one of six survivors of our nation's only newsroom mass shooting, seeing generalized media-bashing tweets from the president makes me fear for my life. His words have power, and give bad actors justification to act."

1 hour and 27 minutes later, Trump tweeted this: "The New York Times reporting is false. They are a true ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!"
posted by homunculus at 9:12 PM on February 20


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