Steve Bannon wants to reclaim the word racist. So let’s find a word he can’t reclaim

I mean, no one in their right mind is going to proudly go round claiming to be a shitbag, are they?

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Steve Bannon – former Trump staffer, co-founder of Breitbart, a man who looks suspiciously like he’s just been dredged up following a two-day stint at the bottom of a canal – is, like many a nationalist menace before him, touring Europe. This weekend he was in Paris, speaking to Marine Le Pen’s Front National.

There are many upsetting things about his speech, quite apart from the fact he’d given it at all. The attempt to position the French far-right and the current occupant of the White House as part of the same movement is one. The claim that “history is on our side” – a claim which, as any number of wags pointed out, could be dispelled by as little as 30 seconds on the Wikipedia page for World War Two – is another.

Perhaps the most worrying bit, though, is this one:

“You fight for your country and they call you racist. But the days when those kind of insults work is over. The establishment media are the dogs of the system. Every day, we become stronger and they become weaker. Let them call you racists, xenophobes or whatever else, wear these like a medal.”

There are a couple of reasons this is worrying. One is that it’s another step towards the normalisation of hate speech. We’ve already had “It’s not racist to talk about immigration”, and “very real concerns”. “What’s wrong with being racist?” is the obvious next step, and fuck that.

The other is the horrible suspicion it might actually work. There’s a long history of oppressed groups appropriating terms used to abuse them, and using them to drain them of their power: “queer” in the gay community, the n-word in rap. Racists are not in any way oppressed, of course – would that they were – but that’s not stopped them pulling this sort of trick before, and if Racist Pride becomes a thing then we’re all in trouble.

So here’s my proposal. If these fuckers are willing to wear words like “racist”, “xenophobe” or “Nazi” as a medal, we need to start describing them with a word they can’t possibly treat as such. We need a word they will never want to appropriate.

What should this new label be? Ideally, it needs to be something that nobody would want to use about themselves – one that’s going to make them look sad rather than cool, and basically gross people out. It needs to be at least mildly abusive but, unlike so many terms of abuse, which relate straight back to someone’s genitals, needs to not be gendered. And ideally, to give us maximum flexibility here, it should work as both a noun and an adjective.

My suggestion, inspired by Bannon himself, is “shitbag”. I mean, no one in their mind is going to proudly go round claiming to be a shitbag, are they? Even the kind of people who bafflingly think that Pepe the Frog looks kind of awesome are going to think twice about greeting strangers with, “Actually, I’m a shitbag”.

The term is grammatically flexible, too. We can refer to racist shitbags or xenophobic shitbags, to emphasise the point and get people used to the word’s new implications. But we can also refer to “shitbag commentator Steve Bannon”, or “Marine Le Pen, leader of the French shitbags” and it still works. I, personally, would prefer LBC to stop giving shitbags a platform.

I’m not necessarily attached to this specific word – apart from anything else, it may struggle with over-zealous corporate email filters – so I am open to alternative suggestions. But I suspect this isn’t the last we’re going to hear of the “let’s reclaim the label ‘racist’” argument. Before it gets too far, we need to come up with an alternative, and the sooner we all settle on one the more chance we have of it sticking.

Using the word “shitbag” to describe racists would imply that racists are literally just sagging carriers of shit. Rather like Steve Bannon himself. You’re welcome to come up with a better label for these shitbags – but frankly, I think you’re going to struggle.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.