How name-calling alienates supporters

I wrote this story just before Covid-19 took our attention from climate change and other topics. It discusses how the use of language can alienate supporters of social movements and how avoiding such language makes for inclusive movements.

Russ Grayson
Aug 10, 2020 · 8 min read

This is the story of how cliches and names can alienate people. It is about the contemporary use of gender or ageist wording and how this has the opposite effect to that intended, how it turns away supporters.

When right-wing adults and media shock-jocks made ad hominem attacks on the age, character, gender and politics of Norwegian climate activist, Greta Thunberg, an illustrator produced a work calling them and the economic elite at the head of the oil and gas industry who oppose moves to ameliorate the warming climate, ‘white dudes’.

We should be clear that most of the prominent critics of Greta Thunberg are white, are of a middle or older age bracket and are ‘dudes’ when that term is understood to refer to males. Some are media commentators and so have more speaking rights than other people. Together, the most vocal are a political and economic elite.

Well intentioned but self-defeating

The illustrator’s allegation was right. That is not the point of this story. The overuse of terms which highlight ethnicity, gender and other characteristics is. The point is important to people working in, or vocally supportive, of progressive social movements.

‘White dudes’, one of those terms, is similar to other Americanisms creeping into our Australian vocabulary. Terms like ‘old white males’, ‘middle-aged white guys’ and ‘fragile white dudes’ have been adopted mainly by Australians who view things through an ethnocultural, a gender or an ageist lens and who often share some form of vaguely-leftist political attitude.

Although their descriptions may be true, the unfortunate thing in using them is to stigmatise the types of people they describe — old, white, male and so on. ‘Feminist’ is used in similar ways as a putdown to catagorise people, mainly by the right wing. Bounced around the social media echo chambers of like-thinking groups and out to a wider demographic, people read the posts and assume that, somehow, all who are old, white, male or whatever the accusation is, are guilty. Unnuanced use of such terms ascribes universal guilt, whether that is the intention or not. It is obvious that this is an injustice.

When people stigmatise, deliberately or unintentionally, through the use of such terms without saying that there are a great many exceptions, they come across as arrogant and morally superior. They also alienate supporters who may be old, white, male, feminist or whatever the chosen putdown might be. This comes at a cost to social movements because, tired of being lumped with the guilty when they might have worked for decades towards making things better, they walk.

We have probably seen this happen on social media. How many insults does a person have to endure before they have had enough? And what do we see when this happens? More putdown terms like describing the accused as ‘fragile white males’ or similar. It should be obvious that using these terms is a tactical blunder.

Terms of the culture wars

White, old, male, feminist, politically correct. When combined, these word strings imply a particular meaning. They are the terms of the culture wars.

They are also cliches. Like other cliches there is an element of truth to them, however that is diluted through the loose use of the terms and because they are overused. Meaning and impact leach form overused terms until they become largely meaningless, what have been called ‘throwaway’ words. They sometimes become terms of reverse-pride in which a person adopts the term to describe themselves. This dilutes their impact.

How language is weaponised

The use of words of accusation are relevant to a book I read years ago by the educator in thinking strategies, Edward de Bono. He said naming is a powerful tool. Naming gives meaning. By naming something you imply something about it. Naming can be used to support or disparage.

‘White dudes’, ‘old white men’, ‘fragile white males’, ‘feminist’ and similar idioms are good examples when used in an accusing manner to single out some individual or group. When it comes to the culture wars, naming weaponises language. Both the left and right make use of it.

The illustrator I mention is well respected, and deservedly so. When I saw the comment I understood it was not meant to apply to all white males. But that implied exclusion was not made clear. That’s the danger with assumptions, such as males will realise that not all of them were meant to be targets. They are assumptions to the person making them but not necessarily to anyone else.

Social media readers did not understand the terms applied only to the particular the subset of older, white males attacking Greta Thunberg. They took offence and responded in the comments on the facebook group.

I’m a supporter of Greta Thunberg and her ilk; it’s offensive how you’re lumping ‘white dudes’ together as being opposed to her and her message. I can understand that it may appear to be a ‘white dude’ thing when you have people like ScoMo, Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt all effectively on the same side, but in making such gross generalisations you’re falling into the same trap as this other ‘side’ when they make generalisations about ‘young people’ or ‘African gangs’ too”.

Many climate change deniers throughout the world would not be white, and many would not be male”.

If you’re going to generalise at all here, I think the generational aspect of this is more relevant — but, again, people like David Attenborough remind us that we can only generalise so far in this regard too”.

“‘White men’ are not a homogenous group — some are poor, some are rich; some have power, some are powerless. Some are part of the problem; others are part of the solution”.

Most of the world’s climate scientists, who have worked diligently to bring climate change to the attention of the world, are white males”.

Yes, many white males are denying climate change and supporting vested power groups; but many others are supporting and creating change”.

I read the comments carefully, and the post, despite some later qualification, gives the impression of lumping white males together, with no qualification in the main text box”.

If all white males were to band together, conspiracy-style, and sue (the illustrator), I’m confident that the argument that (the person) is not defaming us would fail to hold up in court”.

And (the illustrator) seems to label anyone who takes issue with her argument to be a ‘troll’. We can’t win, apparently!”.

Tired of the skin tone/gender bias… Totally pollutes the message.”, wrote another, a non-Anglo.

Kick-back

Here we see people kicking back against the assumption that they would realise the comment was not aimed at them. In defence of the illustrator, some commentators to the social media post said as much. However, the point is that those whom the item was not directed at were left to realise that for themselves.

The incident is not the only example of this. White people, males, the old and young have taken offence at similar comments with racial, gender or ageist wording that puts them in the same bag as the guilty fitting those descriptions.

It is the way the terms are used as generalisations. The responses show how it comes across as accusing all older white men of being guilty of some transgression. Predictably, that triggers a hostile reaction. In the example we are looking at, hostile reactions make gender, ethnicity and the illustrator the main thing, taking the focus away from the illustrator’s intention.

There are always exceptions

The point about not generalising on the basis of gender, sexuality or age is important to citizen journalists. There are always exceptions to generalisations and people will point that out. They will be compelled to defend themselves. That is why journalists sometimes make the precaution of starting a sentence with ‘generally,…’ when they make a generalisation.

When the portion of exceptions is likely to be large it might be better to make our point without generalising and by being more specific.

Let’s not alienate supporters

For influential people in social movements and citizen journalists working with them or writing about them, using inclusive language is important because numbers are important to the impact of the movements. It is best not to alienate even when tempted to use gender or age-related terms. Avoidance of accusations around gender, age and ethnicity is a good tactic.

Viewing any issue through ethnicity and skin colour, gender or an ageist lens is potentially divisive of social movements and potentially alienates supporters who fit that description. Supportive people are turned away. Language based around those single issues, important that they are, exclude people.

Using the language of gender, age and ethnicity risks fracturing movements. This is not to say that issues around those characteristics are not important, however wrongful use of those terms can turn people away.

Better to focus on what people have in common and build the movement on that.

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