These Are The Words That Divide Us

Sometimes it feels as if our country is more divided than it’s ever been.

With social media and cable news outlets acting as our own personal echo chambers, it feels like our political differences seem to be dividing us more than ever. But, we should also recognize that this isn’t the first instance of divisive politics in US history. Think about the incredibly tumultuous 1960s, when the draft, the Vietnam war, freedom of speech, civil rights, women’s rights all contributed to what was widely considered a generational and cultural shift. Then, as now, some families actually stopped talking to each other, and it was recommended that dinner party conversation never, ever involve politics or religion.

While that might still serve as sound dinner party advice today, it’s not likely we can avoid “hot topics” around the clock and in all social settings (nor should we!). Instead of silencing ourselves in the company of those who don’t agree with us, lets try to foster better communication by understanding (and empathizing) with others. By understanding why others may take offense to certain politically charged, hot-button words, we can start having better, more meaningful discussions. Even if we still don’t agree!


Right, or Left?

Identifying someone (or something) as right wing or left wing can be a divisive generalization, and often completely incorrect. These terms are used to convey placement on the political spectrum, with left referring to liberal and, often, progressive thought, and the right referring to conservative thinking.

The use of the term wing implies that the subject is firmly on that side of the spectrum, and, maybe, even entrenched there. When dividing people up into two generalized groups, we can forget that there are nuances and complexities to every individual. You may agree with some liberal ideas and some conservative ideas, and that doesn’t make you flippant or indecisive, it makes you human. Try listening to what people say, rather than labeling them up front as left or right wing. You may be surprised by what you learn when you hear people out before judging them.

Alt-Right / Alt-Left

The prefix alt—short for “alternative”—refers to extreme ideologies when attached to the terms right and left.

The alt-right rejects mainstream conservatism, with its origins in white nationalism. (The term was first widely used by white supremacist Richard Spencer in 2010.)

On the other hand, members of the conservative media, and some in the alt-right itself, gave birth to the term alt-left. Unlike alt-right, this term was not coined by those it is supposed to represent, but by others hoping to equate a far-left faction with the negative connotations of the extreme right. Recently, the term has come to mean members of Antifa, or the militant “Anti Fascist Action” group, which embraces the physical confrontation of white supremacists and neo-Nazis at rallies and public events. They take their name from the original “Anti Fascist Action” group that took root in Berlin in 1932, by the anti-fascist Communist Party.

Both of these terms, when used to describe people you simply disagree with, can be incredibly disparaging and inaccurate.


Unless your intent is to irritate, using the term snowflake for a liberal or progressive person is a pejorative you might want to avoid. Before the 2016 election, it referred to (liberal) millennials, who are “easily offended” and in need of “safe spaces.” After the election, the word shifted to refer more pointedly to liberals and progressives in general, who might melt in the face of political defeat.

It originated in the 1996 book “Fight Club,” in which a Project Mayhem member tells the group: “You are not the beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” (Interestingly, the word was also used in the late 1800s to mean a person who was against abolishing slavery.)

Once again, this is a label used to dismiss opinions without actually understanding them.


Similarly, the term extremist is often used to dismiss people with conservative ideas. After Hillary Clinton’s campaign term “deplorables” (meaning supporters of Donald Trump) backfired in a number of ways, extremist became one of the most widely used derogatory terms for conservatives, with ideologue right behind it.


Climate Change

Climate change is a sure button-pusher. Virtually all of the scientific world agrees that climate change is happening, though some people still doubt it. While many of these people aren’t quite “climate deniers,” they do question the reason for climate change, claiming that any kind of regulation or restriction on peoples’ activities is unnecessary and inappropriate.

Using the phrase climate science eliminates the ambiguity of the change, and refers to the study of climate as opposed to the debate surrounding what to do about it.

Entitlements vs. Benefits

The word entitlements has long been used to refer to government aid, but in recent years, conservative thought-leaders have adopted and re-branded it. Now the word entitlements is used with a negative spin, to imply free handouts (usually to people perceived as undeserving of those benefits).

Generally, the language used in reporting on these programs tells you what kind of slant your news outlet is delivering. For instance, you won’t really see the word in liberal outlets, and in unbiased reporting it’s only used when discussing policy, and is meant to reflect the government’s official language. Journalists will often use the word benefits instead, with liberal outlets sometimes using the phrase safety net.

From Far and Wide

Illegal vs. Undocumented

The phrase illegal alien, meaning a foreigner who comes to a country illegally, is more often used in conservative communication. In recent years, the more progressive undocumented immigrant, or undocumented worker, has taken hold in non-political news outlets.

Illegal alien, implies lawbreaking and a kind of “otherness” that can come off as accusatory, and distract people from your message.


The government designates some immigrants as refugees, after a vetting process which takes as long as two years. A refugee must prove that they are in danger in their country of origin. Some refugees become undocumented or illegal when they circumvent that process.

So, what’s the difference between immigrant and emigrant? The main difference is intent: An immigrant is someone who moves to another country, often with the intent to live permanently. An emigrant is someone who leaves a country (often their native home) and settles somewhere else, not necessarily permanently.

Black and White

Black Lives Matter

Racial issues in America have always been present, and likely won’t go away in the near future. Two new memes are very much a part of today’s racial lexicon: white privilege and Black Lives Matter (BLM).

BLM is an organization, a slogan, and a movement that started after police shot and killed a number of young, unarmed Black men in various parts of the country. Most progressives and people of color interpret it to mean, “It needs to be said: black lives have value and worth, just like white lives.”

However, many others, often conservative-leaning people, see it as meaning, “Black lives matter more than other lives,” and have taken to responding to those in support of BLM with “all lives matter.” On the surface, this seems like a reasonable statement (after all, you would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t think all lives matter), but when said in the face of rampant violence against people of color (disproportionately to their representation as citizens), it comes across as a dismissal of facts and a refusal to acknowledge injustice.

White Privilege

Former professor Peggy McIntosh made the phrase white privilege famous in her 1989 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In it, McIntosh discussed everyday advantages of being born with white skin, and why it culminates in the privilege of feeling “normal” in society.

The main idea behind white privilege is that white people enjoy the daily privilege of not being subjected to systemic racism—both subtle and overt. But, some feel this term, when used as a blanket statement, can dismiss their own personal struggles, whether it be poverty, disability, or other hardships outside of their race. Empathizing with this sentiment is one way to help remove the negative connotations associated with the term white privilege so that more people can acknowledge its very real impact on our society.

As with most things in life, shades of gray are to be found in all of these words coloring our political dialogue today. Choose your words wisely because what you say matters.

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