Should we call concentration camps “concentration camps” if they exist inside of America? This is the debate currently raging across the internet, which, in its purest incarnation, pits Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez against Rep. Liz Cheney. Their original exchange, in which Ocasio-Cortez cited a prominent Holocaust scholar and Cheney accused her of not knowing the basic details of the Holocaust, went like this:
Hell essentially broke loose from there. Dictionaries were referenced, with Merriam-Webster helpfully offering that a concentration camp is “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard—used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners.” The Auschwitz Museum weighed in. Yad Vashem weighed in. The Wiesenthal Center weighed in. And once again, a fight about whether families should be held in overcrowded freezing cages without access to sanitation or adequate health care was reduced to an argument, via Twitter, over word choice.
As usual, though, this episode hasn’t just been a fight over words. It’s a fight about whose closest Holocaust survivor has a monopoly on suffering. It’s a fight about who is using which people’s pain to score political points. It’s a fight about each of our subjective feelings about words as attached to our own lives and histories. In short, it’s an unwinnable semantic debate about us, instead of an active, moral conversation about the children who are currently being kept in freezing cages, where some of them have died and more seem likely to die soon.
Make no mistake: Calling things what they are is important. It’s particularly important when there’s a president who uses the word millions to mean anything more than 20, and treason to mean “anything that makes me feel bad,” and collusion to mean, well, who even knows. Donald Trump manipulates language and words because he wants to manipulate reality, and the need to call that out still feels imperative.
But what is exhausting about the current debate over the use of the words concentration camp goes beyond Trump and his made-up reality. At its heart, the question is: Should we call these camps, where a distinct group of people is being detained by the government, by their proper scholarly name? Or should we avoid it because it invokes the Holocaust and might somehow diminish from the attendant suffering of those who perished there? Again, the question turns on emotion, on individualized reactions to the specific words, rather than on accuracy and precision; as many have pointed out, the term “concentration camp” predates the Holocaust and does not require an intention toward genocide.
The problem can perhaps be better illustrated by the inverse of the current debate. In May, the Guardian announced it would be changing its style guide for the words used to describe climate change. No words would be banned per se, but in declaring a preference for “climate crisis,” “climate emergency,” or “climate breakdown” over the usual “climate change,” the paper felt it would be better able to convey that “what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity,” according to editor-in-chief Katharine Viner. Since this announcement, several other news outlets, most of them international, have adopted similar policies as a means of ratcheting up the urgency of the conversation.
The Guardian does fantastic reporting on climate change, and the move was clearly made with the best of intentions. It’s not so much that it will do any harm. But it’s hard to understand what good this noun switch might bring. Slowing climate change goes far beyond alighting upon the correct nouns. It requires us to figure out how to tell a story that connects some very far-flung dots; a story that makes stakes in the future feel real and relevant today; a story that makes disasters we’ve lived through resonate with what we can expect going forward if we don’t act. It’s about what tactics we deploy to make that noun matter.
That shift brings to mind the same questions that poison the debate over labeling the migrant detention centers concentration camps: Are we now spending more time on the labels than on the actual harms? In a time of information overload and outrage fatigue, is fighting over what we call things coming at the cost of fighting against the things themselves?
The sometimes threadbare political axiom “if you’re explaining, you’re losing” comes to mind. More often than not, the words imply that giving people good, truthful information is a waste of time. But that doesn’t have to be so. One of the things Sen. Elizabeth Warren is doing so dramatically on the campaign trail is naming phenomena, and then … taking the time to explain them. And there’s a chance that the more time we spend on explaining, clarifying, and re-affixing words to meaning, the more likely we might be to work our way back to building shared meanings of words, which still remains the predicate for governing.
But we must question whether battles over who is most affronted by references to the Holocaust come under the category of explaining, or trying to find shared meanings, or reaching for truth. Because it feels less like a rational conversation about known history and its lessons, and more like another battle over whose feelings about history count more. What it actually feels like is a distraction from confronting the actual things we are attempting to name—which are themselves a horror—and an agreement to instead bicker about language and history. It’s probably no coincidence that even who owns the words “never again”—originally intended to signal that we must look back to history to understand what is happening now—is currently being debated after it was invoked by AOC in reference to “concentration camps.”
“Never again” means as much or as little as we choose to have it mean. It could have meant no more Parklands a year ago, and it could mean no more people in cages now. Fights over who can claim it didn’t stop the Parkland students from fighting for gun policy reform. But you will never persuade anyone that what they think a phrase means is wrong. You might, however, persuade them, using facts and evidence, that a country that locks up families for seeking asylum legally is not a country to be proud of. You might persuade them that action around climate change is imperative, because it is a crisis that is already costing and harming us. You might, if you take the time to explain why nouns make you feel a certain way instead of just repeating your nouns.
Because it’s not how we label our nouns that counts. What matters is that words still have the capacity to move, inspire, and terrify us. If they can still do that, perhaps they can still push us to act, even if we don’t always agree.
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