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From 'Alt-Right' to 'Pro-Life', Words Defining Policy Have a Big Impact

Melanie Cook/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The politics of rhetoric.

From Texas Standard:

President-elect Donald Trump has called for “extreme vetting” – his preferred wording for a policy that would essentially close U.S. borders to refugees from predominantly Muslim countries. Texas has rebranded its “bathroom bill” as the “Women’s Privacy Act” – a proposal to deny people who are transgender from using public bathrooms that fit with their gender identity. The white nationalist movement calls itself the “alt-right.” Abortion advocates say they are part of the “pro-choice” movement and anti-abortion advocates call themselves “pro-lifers.”

Language like this has played out along the many fault lines of public opinion. It’s an often fierce battle over the words politicians and the public use. Under a Trump presidency, it’s possible that even more rebranding of language will take place. But the shift of wording doesn’t change the underlying ideas behind the rhetoric.


Jennifer Mercieca, associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University, says we fixate on terms that make the most sense to those talking about the underlying policy or group.

"It's marketing and public relations, which is a form of propaganda,” Mercieca says. “Propaganda is a stronger term."

Mercieca says we can look to Jeremy Bentham – the 18th-century philosopher and founder of modern utilitarianism – to explain this use rhetoric.

"One of the things that he noted is that there's a tendency ... to use what he calls logistic terms and dyslogistic terms,” she says. “Logistic terms are eulogistic – they're ways of praising people or ideas, whereas dyslogistic is obviously attacking instead of praising. So that the way that we use terms provides a kind of distance between the term itself and the idea."

Take, for example, the “alt-right” movement, the rebranding of white nationalists and white supremacists – a mix of racism and populism that aims to protect the rights of the white race.

“If you're someone who's trying to rebrand the white nationalist party, you might say that you're alt-right, meaning you're an alternative to the right, meaning that the opposite of the alternative to the right is the normal left,” Mercieca says. “It's a way of saying that your group is not normal and normal is bad."

“Saying that you're a white supremacist is bad in American political discourse, but saying that you're an alternative, well, wow, I mean in the 90s we liked alternative rock. It's not necessarily a bad thing. So it's a way of rebranding and also hiding what you're doing."

Another example, Mercieca says, is the rebranding of minimum wage policy – what would be minimally required for subsistence – to a living wage policy – what it would mean to have a quality of life that is considered equitable to the American dream.

“Using these terms absolutely is powerful,” she says. “Yes, it does comment on the underlying policy, but it's also something that circulates at a level of public relations where people can easily grasp a concept and it has eulogistic or dyslogistic parameters, associations for people and that's great. If you're on the right side."

Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.
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