The Language War

Dartmouth University linguistics professor Lewis Glinert has an important article on language, the media, and the Mideast conflict: The Language War. Excerpt:

Advocates for Israel have fought a long and largely unsuccessful fight on this terrain. The term “peace activist” effortlessly scores a point about who is for peace and who is against it. When a 15-year-old Palestinian boy is shot by the IDF, the word “boy” tends to evoke tender age and innocence (compare “Police arrested several youths for loitering”). The term “Palestinian,” by association with “Palestine” – used unchallenged as the time-hallowed name for the Holy Land – sends a clear message as to who are the rightful inhabitants of the land…

One stealth technique is collocation – i.e., the use of two words in the same breath so as to effect a semantic contamination. Examples are “the plight of the Palestinians” and “illegal settlements.” Another is the use of what the rhetorician Richard Weaver labelled “devil terms” and “God terms” – words that act like automatic moral triggers, such as “oppression,” “occupation,” and “uprising.” The Western media have duly done their best to keep the devil term “terrorist” out of their reporting. Grammar, too, may be subtly suggestive…

Language wars are messy and laborious. They also require skills that are not widely taught. A few rudimentary actions may certainly be taken, such as placing questionable words in “scare quotes” (as if to say “so-called”); avoiding certain devil terms; and reconnoitering more positive alternatives for use.

But this is hardly enough. The times call for an urgent assessment of what we are being subjected to and for a quite new kind of training to deal with it. This training must not be limited to professionals. As in all modern conflicts, the entire community is at risk; it must therefore be familiarized with the propagandists’ arts and trained to protect itself.

The stakes, as history has shown, are high. The successes of the Fascist/Marxist language machine in making the Jew vermin and tyranny democracy have been well learned by contemporary adversaries. But the angels can fight back. One may draw encouragement, for example, from the initial success of Western liberalism in combating so much that is prejudiced and discriminatory in our language.

Some of this starts in schools and colleges, where students are now beginning to learn to de-construct TV ads and media politicking. In the words of the doyen of American rhetoricians, Kenneth Burke, “Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is ‘meaning’ there is persuasion.”