When Words Are No Longer Common Ground

May 02, 2018
Lora Berg
Caitlin McCoy
4 min read
Photo Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

“If we want a Hungarian Hungary and a European Europe, and that is exactly what we want,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said in recent months, “then we must also want a Christian Hungary and a Christian Europe, instead of what now threatens us: a Europe with a mixed population and no sense of identity.”

Populist leaders and willing segments of the public on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly trying to lay claim to terms that define identity — such as “European,” the boundaries around which could and should be drawn inclusively — to determinedly conflate these terms with bias, aiming to exclude others based on religion, race, ethnicity, language and culture. Indeed, there is a growing schism in the moral value assigned to certain words. Some far to the right are recasting words not only regarding belonging, such as “European,” but also describing inclusive societies, such as “coexistence,” “diversity,” and “inclusion” in arguments to undermine inclusive values. Long a move of populists, with disturbing echoes of fascist rhetoric, our societies are currently engaged in a struggle over who belongs — with redefined words and terms used as the weapons to marginalize. The age-old political habits of strongmen, namely ostracizing groups of people and hence the names of these groups, is again ascendant. It has therefore become urgent for those who favor open and liberal societies to clarify our claim on the words we use to express inclusive values. 

On this side of the Atlantic, the current U.S. administration is going so far as to banish words from federal communication that signal inclusivity, for example, from the mission statements of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Defense, and the Department of State. 

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic and beyond political discourse, Orban is overseeing new language in textbooks for the national education program, such as for 8th-graders who now learn in the context of rejecting immigration, “It can be problematic for different cultures to coexist.”  In this way coexistence is turned from a word with positive to negative connotations. 

Echoes also reverberate through our wider cultures, with tropes such as anti-Semitic name calling on the rise, a step along the continuum to physical attacks — as is the verbal dismissal of whole groups of people as dangerous and criminal, laying the groundwork to do these communities harm. Terms that once were shared are now falling to the same pressures of political opportunism and nationalist backsliding that several national political climates are facing.

The contest over words is also occurring among movements of progressives and further to the left. Communities that have been the victims of the most pernicious evils in the United States and Europe are finding new pathways to amplify their voices and be heard on a scale not witnessed since the U.S. Civil Rights movement. These activists too are challenging the moral value of words and concepts; for example, even as business leaders embrace the words diversity and inclusion, some in these groups question whether the terms are being used to cover up inequality rather than to move forward with needed structural changes. 

A salient example of a word embroiled in this phenomenon is “European.” In it most literal use, it means simply “relating to or characteristic of Europe or its inhabitants.”  But its literal definition is not its only meaning anymore, for it has been infused with connotations that detract from its ability to exist as a neutral word in a shared political language. “European” has been co-opted by the rising nationalistic right as a dog-whistle for white ethno-nationalism, while it is also a word that has been drawn into the vision of the European Union. The word “European” sits at the center of the tug-of-war over the continent’s future.

Our shared vocabulary and understanding regarding inclusive societies is at a tipping point. A new consensus must be reached. This might mean advocates of open and free societies must reassert claim over certain words and fight to maintain their legacy meanings, while fending off those who would look to co-opt them to the detriment of inclusive societies. We require a common language to undergird our interactions and decisions that is inclusive and respectful of not just of those in power, but of every individual. Pushed too far — when within one country, our understanding of words becomes so divergent that we are in fact speaking different languages — unity becomes tenuous. We must stand up for our definitions of terms currently under siege, and ensure that the words we require to shape a better future are not warped or banned. And at the same time, we must check in more often than we have in the past with our interlocutors, friend or foe, to ensure that we are in fact talking about the same thing.