“Can’t we just call a racist a racist?”
”It is time to stop using the term ‘alt right,'” declared a headline in the Columbia Journalism Review for a 2017 piece by Shaya Tayefe Mohajer.
In the feature, written just three days after Heather Heyer was fatally injured at the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Mohajer asked journalists to abandon the phrase “alt right” as a description for bigots, white nationalists, and Neo-Nazis.
“Can’t we just call a racist a racist?” she urged, suggesting that doing otherwise does a disservice to readers by allowing a white supremacist movement “to define itself in a manner that distances itself from typical bigots.”
The murkiness of labels works to the advantage of the bigot when it comes to concepts an audience is unfamiliar with. As Mohajer observed, “It matters that we call racism and white supremacy by the terms best understood by our readers and our history.” Underlying her point is the implication that precision is essential.
Mohajer was onto something.
The nebulousness of the phrase alt-right has proven to be problematic. While in 2016 it became popular among Trump supporters of all shapes and kinds, by 2017 it was rejected by even strong nationalists. Although various definitions all seem to generally agree that alt-right means far-right, bigoted, white nationalist extremists, the practice of applying the label has been tricky. Especially when it comes to the non-far-right, the non-bigoted, non-white nationalists, and non-extremists.
Enter a recent controversy involving American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers.
This week, many Twitter commenters took issue with Sydney Morning Herald journalist Jenny Noyes for describing Sommers as having been “associated with the alt-right” in a story about her upcoming debate with author Roxanne Gay.
Some people have taken issue with my description of Christina Hoff Sommers as having been “associated with the alt-right”. I’m not sure how else one would describe a darling of Breitbart News but OK? Hit me with your more “balanced” alternatives. https://t.co/ubspeCIRkb
— Jenny Noyes (@jennynoise) September 18, 2018
Noyes defended her description of Sommers, who is a lifelong Democrat and advocate of equity feminism, by calling her a “darling of Breitbart” and linking to pieces about Sommers published in the far-right outlet.
Leaving aside the problematic logic contained in Noyes’ defense (Does this ostensibly pro-Barack Obama article in Breitbart mean the former president is also a “darling of Breitbart”?), the situation speaks to the broader confusion over what it means to be alt-right.
If the definition of alt-right has expanded to include someone like Sommers, it’s completely lost its initial utility as a descriptor for a particular movement that embraces “white ethnonationalism as a fundamental value,” as the Southern Poverty Law Center describes it on their website.
Or even worse, it grants a minor win to outright white supremacist Richard Spencer, who is credited with coining the term alt-right. Mohajer noted in 2017 how the alt-right wanted to “rework their public personas with a term that makes them sound a little edgy, like an alt-weekly or alt-rock.” The aim being to rebrand noxious ideologies to make them more palatable to the mainstream. Having credible public figures and non-racists lumped in with them probably suits guys like Spencer just fine.
Same goes for a Data Society report, published this week, on the dangers of YouTube’s “Alternative Influence Network.”
— Jason Abbruzzese (@JasonAbbruzzese) September 18, 2018
According to researcher Rebecca Lewis, “a giant network of influencers on YouTube is broadcasting reactionary ideas to young viewers – and radicalizing them in the process.” A “six degrees of separation”-esque graphic accompanying the report lists relatively mainstream figures like Joe Rogan and Ben Shapiro alongside Spencer.
In the report, Lewis includes a description illustrating how Shapiro, who is Jewish, and Spencer are linked: “Network Path 2 shows how conservative pundit Ben Shapiro is connected to white nationalist Richard Spencer through the vlogger and commentator Roaming Millennial; she has appeared on Shapiro’s YouTube show and has hosted Spencer for an extended interview on her channel.”
Shapiro, two degrees removed from white supremacist Spencer, is thus part of a collaboration “that can create radicalization pathways.”
It’s another example of a misguided attempt at labeling, which has in many cases devolved into tarring people one disagrees with as racists without naming them as such. Mohajer’s words are once again instructive here, “Can’t we just call a racist a racist?”