Language in Conflict

Language – and vocabulary – are two of the most important, most fundamental aspects of interpersonal communication. They are the cornerstones of communication, building blocks which transcend mediums and are pretty much universal. It’s not surprising that the U.S. government has finally caught on to the importance of language and vocabulary; rather, what is surprising is how long it took them to do so.

Some of the more reactionary people in the world are bemoaning the new guidelines from the government, which urge that emotionally-loaded terms like “jihadist” and “islamo-fascist” be dropped in favor of less confrontational terms like “extremist”. This hand-wringing is very predictable, of course – and you have to love the irony when a government contractor labels the development a War of Ideas Defeat. Defeat? The only thing defeated is the sheep-like trend for folks to use inflammatory, over-the-top, unproductive, and self-defeating terminology.

Language, obviously, is important, a fact which nobody seriously denies. Now, its importance may at times be blown out of proportion – I’m thinking of those who have in the past argued that vocabulary and language are somehow inherently exclusionary and elitist, and work against class equality in one way or another – but its still recognized as valuable. (If only, alas, as a tool for propagating stereotypes and reinforcing systemic oppression.)

An example of the government’s slow-moving grasp of this concept is seen in the DHS newsletters I posted over the last two weeks. As I described on those pages, the “Domestic Terrorism Newsletter” morphed into the “Domestic Extremism Digest” over the span of a couple of years. The change from “newsletter” to “digest” recognized the growing intelligence nature of the publication, but the change from “terrorism” to “extremist” was part of the same “war of words” campaign that has now done away with – one can hope – “islamo-fascist”. The term terrorist has a long history, and carries a lot of emotional baggage, especially in those parts of the world – and I’m not including the United States on this list – which have a long, steady history of facing the same. After 9/11, the “T word” became (over)used, and applied to far too many things to which it shouldn’t have been. It’s taken quite some time for the government to realize that – and to realize that referring to “insurgents” as “jihadis” does nothing to win over their “hearts and minds”.

Part of the problem – and one which has been recognized for decades – is that over-the-top rhetoric has a tendency to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you publicly brand someone – an individual, a political party, a social movement, a social or ethnic group, or whatever – with a label, or at least a negative one, there’s a tendency for the target of your rhetoric to become more in line with that label. It’s a fairly complicated process, and it doesn’t happen all the time; after all, just saying something doesn’t make it so. Nonetheless, it does – and will continue – to happen, and governments, in particular, are well aware of this.

One example that has little to do with terrorism is the array of terms you can use to describe people who are, politically, “left” of some given point of reference. Democrats? Not really a huge problem, there. Liberals? Again, not that horrible. But radicals? Or activists? Anarchists? Extremists? Socialists? Communists? Depending on who you’re referring to, most of these could be literally true, yet some evoke a much more, ah, emotional response than others.

If you browse the websites of some of these far-left groups, you’ll see that some of them, however few and far between, have a decent grasp of the power of language, though they tend to use it in a slightly different fashion than, say, the military or politicians. On the surface, it’s easy to mistake these vocabulary choices as having more – or less – meaning than is probably intended; only with time and experience do you realize that not everyone who refers to their fellow extremists as “comrade” is necessarily an honest-to-goodness communist, though you can be forgiven for initially thinking so. Not everyone who’s politically left of, say, Diane Feinstein, is – or wants to be labeled – an anarchist, a communist, a radical, or an extremist, let alone a “terrorist”. At least some parts of the government recognize this, which is why, come the DNC and RNC conventions this autumn, you’ll probably be seeing much more of the terms “activist”, “demonstrator”, and “protester” than any of the other, more emotionally-weighted terms. It’s not so much that the government cares about the feelings of these folks, as that they don’t want the inevitable, occasional hothead to say “violent anarchists? I’ll show you violent anarchists, pal.” (To be fair, it could – and has been – argued that lumping a whole bunch of fairly diverse special-interest-groups, like anti-war, anti-globalization, and ecological activists, together under one label dehumanizes them and marginalizes their individuality, with a variety of consequences, some not so good. Whether this is true – and whether this is the intent of such labels – is left to the reader to decide.)

That the government is changing the way they refer to insurgents and “violent extremists” is a good thing, not a bad one, despite some folks’ knee-jerk reactions. It means that – years late, sadly – they’ve finally taken the time to learn a thing or two about the cultures involved. That should be, whatever your political leanings, a good sign. Learning is the first baby step on the path to understanding – and not until you understand another, can you hope to successfully negotiate with it.

Published in: General, History | on April 28th, 2008| 1 Comment »

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  1. On 4/28/2008 at 7:26 pm Ben Said:

    s/l parts/l party/