AOC’s Critics Are Pretending Not to Know How Language Works

A great deal of communication is based on metaphor.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Leah Millis / Reuters

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is in the linguistic hot seat yet again. This time, she is taking heat for accusing Donald Trump’s administration of operating “concentration camps” on the southern border. Some people, it appears, would prefer that she refer to them as “tender-age facilities,” as the administration has proposed. Or, at least, some believe it is below the belt for Ocasio-Cortez to use a term that implies a parallel between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler.

However, the idea that Ocasio-Cortez is coarsening public discourse in all its recreational nastiness is based on an almost willfully immature take on how language works. In general, the right is acutely aware that a great deal of communication is based on metaphor and playfulness. For Ocasio-Cortez’s critics to suddenly pretend that language is a matter of blankly stating observations—à la the foreign-language textbook’s “My uncle is a lawyer but my aunt has a spoon”—is a high-school debate-team feint.

Many on the left have observed that the notorious homicidal concentration camps of the Third Reich are not the only kind of concentration camp—that the term can also refer to sites that have been holding pens, such as for the Japanese in this very country at the same time that Jews were being murdered in Europe.

However, Ocasio-Cortez’s defenders are being a bit coy here, turning a blind eye (or ear) to her using the resonance of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen in her choice of words. The reason the term concentration camp is so rhetorically effective is not, let’s face it, due to its reference to places like the Soviet Gulag. Just as many people of late use white supremacy as a stand-in for racism because it summons images of lynching and burning crosses, one says “concentration camp” in order to summon grisly black-and-white images of horror from 1940s Europe.

The right cries foul—as did the left when Sarah Palin was cawing “Don’t retreat, reload” back in 2011, even in the wake of the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Republicans at the time expected all to understand that this was simply colorful, metaphorical language, not a literal incitement to violence. They defend Trump’s ravings today on the same grounds. He has fondly referred to certain “old days” when a protester at one of his rallies would have been “carried out on a stretcher.” And he has suggested that he would pay the legal bills of whoever put him there. Never mind the more lexical violence, such as referring to protesting black athletes as “sons of bitches.”

Anyone expressing outrage is told to read this kind of expression as Trump simply “being real,” part entertainer and part president, someone who is just plain hard to rein in. We are told he is joking and to get over ourselves.

Well, okay then—but surely the right can let Ocasio-Cortez get away with implying certain parallels that are hard to miss between, yes, fascism and Trump’s behavior. We have no reason to suppose Trump desires to herd Mexicans and Central Americans together and put them to death. However, we have every reason to see his actions and statements as manifestations of the kind of ideology that has led to horrors of that kind. Ever floating, if not spelling out, the idea that violence is a permissible means to a glorious national end; the cult of leadership Trump encourages; the suggestion that the openly bigoted members of the alt-right are essentially good people whose views constitute a legitimate counterpoise to those who combat racism—only denialism explains how anyone could not see glimmers of likeness between Trump and Messrs. Hitler and Mussolini.

Add to this the utter heartlessness with which the Trump administration has penned people into spartan facilities, blithely separating small children from their parents, and depicting the people themselves as sinister, marauding aliens. The term tender-age facility qualifies, here, as exactly the kind of Orwellian language we associate with the fascist leaders of old. As such, the term concentration camp would seem quite admissible, when we consider that language is used to convince as much as to merely observe.

We can accept that “Don’t retreat, reload” isn’t always a command to shoot people, and that “I’ll pay the legal fees” if someone punches someone else in the face isn’t always a command to punch someone in the face. But then we must also accept that “concentration camp” harks back to the Nazis without exactly implying that Trump is literally pulling a Hitler. If the right can’t take what it dishes out, it might reconsider its comfort with metaphors of violence. In the meantime, the Trump administration’s “tender-age facility” will be, quite justifiably, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “concentration camp.”