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Are we over-using terms like ‘far-right’, ‘racist’ and ‘fascist’?

Concerns are being raised about ‘conceptual inflation’ whereby ‘use of a term expands too much relative to its meaning’

How far right-of-centre do you need to be before you become “far right”? It’s a serious question. Many – mainly conservative – political commentators have asked whether this term denoting extremism, along with other words like “fascist” and “racist”, are being thrown around too casually when describing certain people’s opinions.

“There are people with far, far more offensive racial views than Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson. If Trump and Tucker [Carlson] are ‘racists’, then what do you call those other people?” – so the American Conservative magazine once remarked.

Trump has created no small amount of confusion himself through linguistic contortions, for example, by accusing black prosecutors in his criminal trials of being “racist” for pursuing those cases; or by pledging just last month to “cast out the fascists” if re-elected president of the United States.

Do these words have any meaning today since there are no agreed definitions? And would we be better to retire the terms completely from public debate?


Nat Hansen, a philosopher of language, is examining these very questions with colleagues in the US and Europe. Hansen and his colleagues are looking not only at the frequency with which such words are cropping up in public discourse but also whether the meaning of these words are evolving over time, or across age groups.

Some people are concerned about “conceptual inflation” whereby the “use of a term by some group has expanded too much relative to its meaning in ordinary language”.

Speaking to The Irish Times on a visit to Dublin, Hansen points out that greater frequency of a term in debate does not necessarily mean conceptual inflation. It may be there are, in fact, more racist views being expressed, or people are more adept at spotting racism and calling it out.

A worry underlying conceptual inflation is that increased use of a term like racist is “diluting its critical power”. In a series of surveys, the researchers discovered “older people are using it differently”, or more selectively, than people aged under 30. However, there was no “intensity beaching”. Across all groups, “being called a racist is the worst conceivable thing you could be called”.

“That goes some way toward addressing the worry that the force of this term has been diluted, or that it has lost some of its moral heft,” Hansen says.

A separate concern, however, is that increased use of the term impedes dialogue exactly because calling someone “racist” is so forceful: Playing the “racism card” acts as a conversation-stopper.

Hansen is alive to this hazard, although he is sceptical about the idea that narrowing the use of “racist” will improve the quality of communication. Instead, he suggests people should be more specific about what exactly is racist about a statement or a political standpoint.

“Racist is a term like any gradable adjective, like, dirty, or sick, where you can qualify how bad this thing is. So you can say, ‘slightly racist’, ‘extremely racist’, or one example we use ‘racist, not in a hateful way but, in an old person type way’,” Hansen says.

“Even with a harsh term like racist, we can make it less harsh when the conversation calls for it.”

Claims surrounding misuse of language, he notes, are sometimes used as a diversionary tactic. It’s tempting to “move up to talk about language instead of sticking with the important political point, or ground-level questions that are not going to be easy to solve”.

This can work both ways. Someone on the left may label a political opponent racist to try to halt legitimate debate over immigration policy. Someone on the right who is accused of holding racist views may refuse to debate their accuser until the claim is withdrawn.

Hansen emphasises the need to allow for different interpretations of the same word. “Rather than retiring expressions, can we be more mindful about whether we’re using the right terminology? It’s about being conscientious communicators,” he says.

Having one textbook definition of a term like racist might make things easier. But it’s a forlorn hope – for two reasons. First, the meaning of words have always evolved. Hansen cites a recent study into the use of the word “gay”. “Older people using it in the 1950s sense would write down ‘it was a gay birthday’ in the happy, festive sense. For middle-aged people, the homosexual sense is the prevalent use. Then for kids, if you asked them ‘what is gay?’ they would say something like ‘school is gay’ in this general pejorative sense.”

Second, it is the nature of political debate that certain concepts are “essentially contested” – to use the phrase of Scottish philosopher Walter Bryce Gallie. Take “democracy”. Is the US a democracy? Is Hungary? What about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? “Even though they’re not using ‘democratic’ in the way we would use it, they [the North Korean government] want to hang on the label as something emotively positive,” says Hansen.

“So there’s going to be an endless battle over who owns these, who gets to apply these, concepts – because their emotional resonance is so powerful ... and we’re not going to be able to just decide ‘here’s what racist applies to’ or ‘here’s what democratic applies to’. We’re always going to get pushback because this is valuable conceptual property that does really important, argumentative work.”