Contributing columnist


The author says that when he wrote about Milo Yiannopoulos, above, in an earlier column, it would have been more effective to quote the Internet provocateur’s own words rather than simply label him. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

I’ve been taken to the woodshed — about my language, of all things.

Or at least the “language of the left,” which I have been known to both use and quote. And though I stand by what I said in the recent column that ignited this firestorm, I’ll concede that it might have been more effective if I’d said it differently.

The column, “The coded power of the alt-right is fueling its rise,” quoted linguist George Lakoff as he drew parallels between the language of the Breitbart News set (where opponents are denigrated as “snowflakes” and “social justice warriors”) and the Nazis. “The strategy [of the right] is to control discourse,” I quoted Lakoff as saying. “One way you do that is preemptive name-calling,” and then he went on to call out a few prime examples.

Some readers were having none of it. “Arguing from the left against using coded language, against snark and sarcasm, against verbal abuse, and against discourse control, is a laughable demonstration of lack of self-awareness,” commented one reader. Another also took umbrage: “Meanwhile, I assume the left still branding everybody they want to silence as a bigot, racist, fascist, misogynist, ‘conservatard,’ ‘fundie,’ etc. is all still totally ok.”

No, it’s not, and I’d even add “homophobic” and “transphobic,” words that are too often used willy-nilly as labels for anyone not supporting LGBT causes. For a couple of years now, I’ve been increasingly hesitant to use any variation of “phobic” or any characterization that ends with “ist,” because such freighted phrases stop a conversation (or a column) dead in its tracks and give the accused no way to respond in a thoughtful, nondefensive manner. Nine times out of 10, I’d say these labels lead not to more light, but only to more heat.

For instance, in one column, I characterized Milo Yiannopoulos, the erstwhile Breitbart News editor, as one “who is rightly called out as a misogynist, racist, [and] transphobic.” My point would have been far more effective if instead of applying a label I had produced the evidence: his own words.

I wish I’d told how Yiannopoulos mocked a male-to-female transgender student at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, last December. With her name and photo on the screen behind him, Yiannopoulos called the student a “tranny,” then claimed that she had “forced his way into the women’s locker rooms this year.” The gay provocateur also told the audience that the student failed to “pass” as a woman, saying, “The way that you know he’s failing is I’d almost still bang him.”

I stand by my assertion that Yiannopoulos’s language and characterizations add up to “transphobic,” but telling this story is so much more powerful, so much more convincing, than any mere label could be.

Here’s another example. Remember “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, the self-proclaimed “tea party favorite” who clashed with Barack Obama during the 2008 election? Wurzelbacher posted on his blog in 2015: “Attention — Libs and the media: I am not a bigot, homophobe or racist. I just disagree with you.” As evidence that he’s not homophobic, Wurzelbacher offered this: “I don’t like the idea of same-sex marriage, I believe it to be wrong. It doesn’t end bigotry or get rid of discrimination, it only changes the definition of traditional marriage. . . . When I give that answer, I am labeled by the left as a hateful, bigoted homophobe. Doesn’t matter that I have friends who are homosexual.”

I’m happy to give Wurzelbacher the space to define his beliefs (although not the right to use those beliefs to interfere in civil marriage contracts). You can decide what you think of those beliefs (and him), so there’s no need for me to apply a label. Hey, give the man credit — some of his best friends are gay!

On the personal side, I’ve also relied on labels when a more nuanced conversation would probably have yielded better results. Perhaps you have, too? For example, I once called a relative “homophobic” when she refused to invite my male partner to a family gathering that included several opposite-sex couples, including my brother and his wife. She bridled at — and denied — the accusation, and my other half and I skipped the party. A lose/lose situation. How much more effective might it have been if I’d explained why she’d hurt me, instead of putting a scarlet “H” on her back? (Years later, we talked about what had happened, and after that she was as inclusive of my new partner as could be.)

Words, words, words — that’s what a packed audience in Houston wanted to talk about last week when I participated in a panel titled “What does it mean to be an American?” hosted by the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square. At one point, I asked the packed theater: Do you think that we need to transcend the current level of discourse in politics, in the media and on social media? The audience, chock-full of both Reds and Blues, unanimously raised their hands to voice their answer: Yes! My reply: Let’s stop deriding and demeaning each other as daily substitutes for debate and discourse. We all need to take personal responsibility for such interactions in our families, our schools, our workplaces, our social media pages — everywhere. When do you start?

Agree or disagree with my perspective? Let me know in the comments section below.

You can reach the author on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on Tuesday, May 16, at 1 p.m.