Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and The English Language
by David Ottlinger
However else we might evaluate her burgeoning career, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a great success in inspiring think-pieces. The freshman congresswoman has been a gift to all political writers in search of a subject. Whether one agrees with her and the causes she champions is a matter of complete indifference. Either way, it has become almost impossible to observe and interpret contemporary politics without having something to say about her. This alone makes her highly significant.
Of course, this is likely not the significance she herself wanted. I doubt she would view the title of “most-thought-pieced” with anything but frustration and scorn. But such praise is less left-handed than it may seem. Ocasio-Cortez came to Washington to change politics, but changing politics first means changing how we think about politics, a fact of which both Ocasio-Cortez and even those writing about her seem to be half-conscious. Her most important influence is often on the ways in which we think and is therefore subtle and sometimes goes unnoticed. During times of political reordering, basic concepts which in earlier eras had been taken for granted come up for revision, a disorienting prospect for those accustomed to the established practice. Our concepts bend according to the gravity exerted by our shifting political reality. If writers may not always be able to articulate this, they always feel it, and it moves them to write.
So, let’s return to Ocasio-Cortez’s most recent controversy, occasioned when she insisted on calling detention centers on the southern border “concentration camps,” eliciting praise from some and gasps of horror from others. This raised the question of what a concentration camp is and whether ICE’s detention centers were it. For such a semantic issue, it has had a certain staying power, with The New York Times running a piece primarily about Ocasio-Cortez’s comments over two weeks after they were made.  Nonetheless, there has been a failure to achieve real clarity. One senses that this controversy is emblematic of a certain kind of difficulty that is becoming more prevalent.
The question Ocasio-Cortez raised and which we must try to answer is whether or not detention centers run by ICE at the Mexican border constitute concentration camps. But before approaching the question of what the words ‘concentration camp’ mean, we have to ask what may seem a hopelessly ambitious question: What does it mean to say that words mean something?
Such a question may seem strange. Certainly journalists are not used to entertaining them. And there is good sense behind the instinct to avoid it. There are many more people who can tell the price of this or that object then are people who can provide an abstract definition of ‘currency’. In the same way, we often understand the meanings of particular words better than we understand meaning writ large. But then there are cases in which general agreement and common usage breaks down. The controversy stalking Ocasio-Cortez is clearly such a case, with people on every side sputtering about language and definitions and wondering how they ended up talking about words, when they wanted to talk about things. This kind of confusion indicates a breakdown of the more general concept which demands that we ascend to more abstract considerations. Or, to employ a metaphor, language is vast and stretches out over many contexts, like a huge lake over its lakebed. In most areas the waters are placid and it’s smooth sailing. But there are also eddy’s and shoals, and when sailing in these areas we must pay closer attention to the water. Such areas are harder to navigate and require a certain seamanship.
Getting out of this particular eddy, I have suggested, means considering what meaning, in general, is. But, fortunately, we can limit this question and confine ourselves to what it is for words like ‘concentration camp’ to mean anything. Such words are called “generals” or “general terms” by philosophers, and their distinguishing feature is that they pick out types of objects or features that many objects can have. The phrase ‘concentration camp’ does not pick out a particular object as does, say, ‘Auschwitz’. Instead, it picks out a set of objects all of which are thought to have some features in common.
On a standard conception of how this works, the general term is associated with a nexus of traits that are called “family resemblances.”  The objects the general term picks out are those that have a critical mass of these traits. So, the general term ‘chair’ picks out a set of objects, namely, the set of all chairs. Not every chair has four legs. Not every chair has a straight back. Not every chair has armrests. But all chairs have enough of these and other features that they can all reasonably be thought of as being the same kind of thing. There may be some cases in which there is no clear answer as to whether an object falls under a general. One can ask if a barstool is a chair, but it may be a question without an answer. Barstools are like paradigmatic chairs in some ways, and unlike them in others. That may be the end of the matter. But in general objects fairly clearly fall under specific generals or do not. A classic armchair is definitively a chair. A sofa is definitively not a chair, much less a table. In the vast majority of cases, language users will agree on what counts and what does not, and this makes the term useful and meaningful. Without all of them sharing any particular trait, chairs nonetheless broadly resemble each other by all having a number of the traits from the same list, as it were. They share enough or resemble one another enough to be thought of as a kind of family of objects. Accordingly, it is practical to designate them all as being the same general kind of thing.
One can apply this logic fairly readily to the term ‘concentration camp’. There is a set of phenomena in the world: all of the things that we call or may be inclined to call “concentration camps.” These phenomena have certain things in common. They are generally built by governments. They generally involve housing mass populations in fairly close quarters (hence “concentration”). They tend to be relatively improvised and made of impermanent structures (hence “camp”). They tend to be involved in stories of persecution, often involving a majority population working its will on some disadvantaged minority population. And so on. Perhaps not every concentration camp will have every one of these features. It is, for instance, possible to imagine something we would clearly want to call a “concentration camp,” perhaps in the dystopian future, run by a private company and hence not having the usual trait of being built by government. Many Nazi camps, paradigmatic in so many ways, were built of more permanent structures, some of which still stand. But all concentration camps have enough of the familial traits to count as belonging to the same group.
A piece published in Esquire some time before Ocasio-Cortez made her remarks approaches the question of whether the detention centers at the American border can legitimately be called “concentration camps,” in a way that makes a great deal of sense if we take a family resemblance understanding of general terms.  Like Ocasio-Cortez, it answers in the affirmative. It supports this conclusion by building on the work of a few historians who undertake comparative analyses of different concentration camps across time and in different countries in order to arrive at a general definition. Looking at the full range of broadly similar operations, they argue that the U.S. border camps are similar enough or share enough family resemblances to be included under the same heading. Subsequent to her controversial remarks, both the piece itself and its general argumentative strategy became popular among Ocasio-Cortez’s defenders. Chris Hayes, for instance, argued that “concentration camps are different from death camps and have a history that both predates and extends far past the Nazis.”  The claim that the border camps are concentration camps is then reasonable. All that is needed is a sufficiently broad historical view.
This defense is quite attractive. It renders Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks inoffensive, or at the very least much less offensive, by eliminating their most controversial content. She was not, on this account, comparing the border camps to the Nazi death camps, except perhaps in a very broad way. It also supplies a very rigorous sense of ‘concentration camp’ which makes her statement reasonable and renders her critics not so much wrong, as misguided; victims of a simple misunderstanding. If it was satisfactory, it would provide a good way for Ocasio-Cortez to clarify her remarks, in that knowing way that politicians mean ‘clarify’, while providing her critics with a way to save face. Everyone would be happy. It is unfortunate, then, that the defense falls apart under scrutiny.
One problem is that this defense tries to assert a continuity between the term ‘concentration camp’ as used in a particular historical framework and the same term as it features in ordinary discourse. In reality, no such continuity exists. When the historians interviewed by Esquire use it, it is as a technical term, defined by its context in a particular historiographical tradition. Within that tradition, it is a commodious concept that embraces many phenomena and has no particular affinity to Nazi death camps except as one instance of the general kind, and a kind of limiting case at that. But when politicians, journalists and ordinary people use the term, they clearly mean something else. In everyday speech it is assumed that if anything is a concentration camp, it is the Nazi death camps, and anything veering too far from this paradigm does not count. This conception is reflected in Merriam-Webster’s entry for the term, which provides the expected general definition but then goes on to note that the term is 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 Oxford English Dictionary presents a very similar entry, also explicitly mentioning Nazi camps.)  This is hardly surprising. Most English speakers, after all, have no knowledge of Spanish concentration camps in Cuba or of German concentration camps in colonial Africa. And when evaluating a statement made by a Congresswoman to the general public, the common concept must take center stage. No doubt far more people understood what Ocasio-Cortez said in terms of the common conception of ‘concentration camps’ than in any technical sense used by historians.
But more definitively, the details of what Ocasio-Cortez said make clear that this whole style of defense is misguided. Specifically, Ocasio-Cortez not only insisted on the term ‘concentration camp’, but also deliberately included the phrase “never again,” which is closely associated with the Holocaust, and the term ‘fascism’.  Taken together, these form a constellation that makes her meaning quite clear. The Esquire-Hayes defense would have it that Ocasio-Cortez used the term ‘concentration camp’, in spite of its association with Nazism, rather than because of it, but the congresswoman’s own rhetoric makes it clear that the latter is the case rather than the former. One could argue that Ocasio-Cortez used the term ‘concentration-camp’ without intending to invoke Nazi atrocity, but one cannot (credibly) argue that she used ‘concentration-camp’, ‘never again’, and ‘fascism’ without intending to invoke Nazi atrocity. It was quite clear what comparison she was making. Suggestions to the contrary are disingenuous.
But it would be wrong to leave the matter there. There is a deeper issue at work, and the feeling that something has gone wrong – that we are trapped in language, like a fly in a bottle – will not be dispelled until that deeper problem is confronted. All that the public discussion following Ocasio-Cortez’s comments has accomplished is to analyze the concept ‘concentration camp’. But the real difficulty is not with this term or with any particular concept. The difficulty is with language and the way it is used in political contexts.
So confused has this debate become, that hardly anyone notices the massive disconnect between Ocasio-Cortez herself and those who argue on her behalf. The latter, as we have seen, argue as they should if the family resemblance understanding of generals is correct. They take the descriptive content of the term ‘concentration camp’ seriously and argue that this content fits the object to which it is applied. But it must be noted that Ocasio-Cortez offered her own defense for her use of the term, and the Esquire-Hayes defense is not it.
Ocasio-Cortez made her comments in full awareness of how controversial they might become. She is at pains to say that she did not “use those words [i.e. ‘concentration camp’] lightly” or “just to throw bombs,” thereby implying that she understood that using such terms would have the effect of throwing bombs. She maintains that stirring such controversy was nonetheless justified, but in defending her choice of terms, she does not, as her defenders do, dig into the meaning of ‘concentration camp’. She offers no general definitions and makes no historical comparisons. She does not consider what features a concentration camp would have to have or what would restrict proper usage of the term. Instead, she defends herself in terms of values.
“The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are. They are concentration camps. And if that doesn’t bother you…” Here, Ocasio-Cortez breaks down in disgust. She decides she has nothing to say to such people, limiting herself, instead, to addressing “the people that are concerned enough with humanity [to believe] that ‘never again’ means something.” She hopes that those people will agree that the existence of government detention centers constitute “a crisis on [whether] America will remain America.”
Looking at such remarks it is clear how different her reasoning is from that which we have already considered. Chris Hayes and the historians interviewed in Esquire want to make distinctions between kinds of things. They consider many government operations and try to sort out which ones are concentration camps and which are not. Ocasio-Cortez is interested in making distinctions between kinds of people. There are those who are concerned enough about what goes on at detention centers to call them “concentration camps” despite the political and social risks that might entail. These people, as she sees it, are “concerned enough with humanity [to believe] that ‘never again’ means something.” The rest she is not even inclined to speak to.
This observation allows us to note another important difference between Ocasio-Cortez and her defenders. Chris Hayes and the Esquire historians approach the question of whether or not the detention centers are concentration camps as one that concerns a matter of fact and has a determinate answer. Either the detention centers are concentration camps or they are not, and that is determined by what the meaning of the term ‘concentration camp’ is and what the detention centers are like. Ocasio-Cortez approaches the question of whether or not to call detention centers “concentration camps” as a test of political daring. What is important is not so much what the camps are like as whether or not people are motivated enough to use a term that carries a useful political charge.
For people like Hayes the question of whether detention centers are concentration camps is a factual one. For Ocasio-Cortez, it is a political one. This means that for Hayes the question is not directly ideological. Hayes, of course, makes no bones about having a view of the detention centers and one which is shaped by his ideology.  He decries them and what goes on at them. But the question of whether they are concentration camps swings free of ideology. It is determined solely by language and its fit (or lack thereof) to the world. Not so in the case of Ocasio-Cortez, for whom the question of whether or not to call detention centers “concentration camps” is one of political calculation. It is nakedly ideological, determined directly by value judgments. It is a question of whether or not one has “concern for humanity.”
Accordingly, the conflict over Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks is about much more than the meaning of a particular word or phrase. It is, in part, a conflict over how language should be employed in the political arena. The different sides are not disagreeing over the meaning of a term, but over the meaning of all terms. In a real sense, they are speaking different languages.
What is distinctive about the way Ocasio-Cortez speaks is how she divorces the meaning of the term ‘concentration camp’ from the value judgment it implies. In philosophical terms, she separates the descriptive content from the normative content and affirms only the latter. Neither is she unique in using concepts in this way, as similar uses have been made of concepts like ‘fascist’ and ‘terrorist’. They are not employed to make new claims about the persons to whom they are applied, nor are they really meant to describe those persons. Rather, they are used to denounce and in such a way that will raise the rhetorical stakes and in a manner that is sure to be controversial. This raising of the stakes puts pressure on those who might be ambivalent to go along with the more strident position, so as to avoid being ostracized by their political peers. Not long ago, it was embarrassing to be considered soft on terrorism, so one might characterize any ambiguous cases of political violence as “terrorism” so as to keep critics off one’s back. Today, it is embarrassing for those on the left to appear soft on Trump. Skepticism about whether detention centers should be called “concentration camps” or about whether Trump can really be characterized as a fascist can easily suggest a lack of commitment to the resistance against the President. This is especially so when influential leaders like Ocasio-Cortez demand adherence. Such contexts make the evaluative part of the concept in question paramount. Someone who identifies with opposition to Trump, and feels pressure to, say, call him a “fascist” in order to feel welcomed by her political peers, is not likely to feel too inclined to carefully explore the nuances of the concept. What matters to her is what she is signaling about her values. (These group dynamics were very well explored in a masterful study by the economist Glenn Loury.) 
Neither does it seem that this kind of treatment of words is new. George Orwell noted that in his own day that the term ‘fascist’ had come to mean nothing more than “something not desirable.”  On the opposite side, the term ‘democracy’ seemed to mean nothing or too many things, but it was always agreed that it is a term of praise. Orwell argued that this created a cloud of ambiguity that made political disputes harder to adjudicate. Because the descriptive content had been hollowed out of terms like ‘fascist’ and ‘democratic’, writers who used them without explicitly defining them were only expressing their attitudes toward something. Calling a thing “fascist”, for instance, was nothing more than declaiming. In a sentence that could have been written for Ocasio-Cortez, Orwell laments, “People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning — they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another — but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying.”
What Orwell noted was how this hampered political arguments. In examining Hayes’ and Esquire’s defense of Ocasio-Cortez, we saw how one can argue over the use of a term as long the descriptive content is included. The content of a concept like “concentration camp” gives one an objective foothold. The argument becomes one over the scope of the concept and the object to which it is applied. Was the term “concentration camp” meant to apply to something this different from the paradigmatic Nazi camps? What are the detention centers like, and do they fit with the content of the term? These are the main questions. But when “concentration camp” means no more than “outrageous facility”, what is there to argue? Naturally one can argue about whether conditions at detention centers are outrageous, but such arguments are much less practical. The dictionary is some use in establishing what is and is not a “concentration camp”. It is of no use in establishing what is or is not an “outrage”.
Orwell also noted how the separation between description and evaluation seemed to render claims impossible to argue. He observes how descriptively meaningless terms can preempt argument with an imagined example from art criticism: “When one critic writes, ‘The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality’, while another writes, ‘The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness’, the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion.” The same reader, I take it, does not treat the two critics as contradicting one another, despite the fact that one has called something “living” and the other has called the same thing “dead.” This might seem strange but is perfectly comprehensible if we take ‘living’ and ‘dead’ to have been hollowed out of their descriptive content. The terms ‘living’ and ‘dead’ are, after all, not logically contradictory, in the way it would be logically contradictory to call something “living” and yet “not living.” The sense that something cannot be both living and dead stems from the descriptive content of both terms. A coroner cannot declare a person both living and dead. But, of course, the critics are not using the terms in the way the coroner does. When one critic calls a work “living,” she is saying little more than that she admires it. When the opposing critic calls the work “dead,” she expresses that she does not. In this way their disagreement is a difference of opinion, not a contradiction.
That Trump is a fascist or that detention centers are concentration camps are, like the assessments of the critics in Orwell’s example, statements of opinion. Ocasio-Cortez’s own recent statement that America is “headed to fascism” also seems to be of this character.  Those who make such statements do not really argue for them. They do not really expect to convince others who are not already inclined to agree, as we see very clearly with Ocasio-Cortez, who explicitly addresses herself only to those who largely agree with her. The speakers do not really specify what they mean. They don’t have to because the only part which they really wish to assert is the part which is obvious: the vivid emotional charge that terms like ‘fascist’ and ‘concentration camp’ still carry.
As a rhetorical gambit, this strategy may work for Ocasio-Cortez and her ilk. But the influence it will have on the language will be regrettable. Political language is more effective, when the evaluative content of terms remains closely anchored to the descriptive content. When a term of dispraise is used in the rich sense that includes the descriptive content, it not only dispraises the object but gives some justification for why the speaker dispraises it. This is why I believe Trump’s abuses of power are better termed “authoritarian” or “illiberal” than “fascist.” ‘Fascist’, as I have argued, implies little more than that Trump’s actions are highly objectionable. Terms like ‘illiberal’ are, by contrast, semantically connected to notions of liberal democracy and individual liberty, which most Americans agree are worth defending. The beginnings of an argument are contained in the terms themselves. A term like ‘illiberal’ gives the Trump supporter (or a voter ambivalent about Trump) something to reckon with. Do they not value individual liberties? Ocasio-Cortez’s chosen words do what Ocasio-Cortez herself does and refuse to speak to such members of our community. Terms like ‘illiberal’ are different. They speak to everyone who at least professes to love liberty.
But one must not only reckon with Ocasio-Cortez and her language. One must also reckon with the spirit behind it. I agree with Ocasio-Cortez as to the high moral stakes of our current political moment. I almost completely disagree with her about what the reaction to such a challenge should be. She and her brain trust have consistently argued that showing anything less than the utmost stridency and zeal is a failure to appreciate the urgency of our situation. My hope is that opponents of the President will be so impassioned as to be cautious, so enraged as to be thoughtful, and so committed as to be strategic. One part of this zealous caution should be expressed in a careful and considered use of language. It is a weapon to be wielded less like a cutlass and more like a scalpel. Such an approach may not be as immediately satisfying as indulging the raillery that Ocasio-Cortez offers us. But the greater satisfaction awaits us on the day when our political enemies have been defeated.