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Monday, February 29, 2016

Language, please

In the raging torrents of populist politics that currently threaten to sink the Western world, I once again find myself unable to take my eyes off the shipwreck that is U.S. news. Specifically, the election. Much has been made of "language" in this cycle, meaning bad language or insults. I'd like to note a much broader way in which language has worsened the situation.

The most important--some would say only--job of a writer is to choose words carefully, to say precisely what she means to say. This is not primarily so I, the writer, can go on to glory in my comparison of U.S. news to a shipwreck in the opening sentence. It is so the words mean to you, my reader, what I mean by them, and carry the intended power.

Words, and images, are often used lazily, however. (That sentence is an example--who misuses them? How lazy not to say.)  For instance, I lived in the U.S.A. from 1972 to 2000. In all that time, as far as the news was concerned, "Muslims" meant people out to destroy innocent lives. Depending on who the U.S. was mad at at the time, they were Iranians, Palestinians, Libyans, or Iraqis (Iraqis were "good" in the 1980s, as were Afghan mujahideen). Since September 11, 2001, "Muslims" has meant al-Qaida, I.S., and now Syrians generally. But always, they were someone foreign screaming on TV.

Now it's 2016 and some Americans are being accused of "Islamophobia." What does that mean to them? All those decades and September 11 and all the rest of it, and now they want to deport the dentist down the street and it's a problem? Since when?

Another example is the phrase "political correctness." I first heard this on a jokey ad in 1989, about how people in the '60s had done drugs and had unsafe sex, because it was "politically correct" to do those kinds of things then. The joke was that Baby Boomers had had all the fun. But in the ensuing twenty-five years, political incorrectness has come to convey anything I want to say that someone, somewhere, doesn't like. The range is too wide to be meaningful.

For one person, it's saying "Merry Christmas" in a store. For another it's calling the President of the United States a n-----. Both of these happen in America, and both are constitutionally protected free speech, but there's a world of difference between them. That world of difference is not law enforcement or speech codes. It's taste.

We are supposed to be an evolving species. We're supposed to discover that x or y is "homophobic" and stop saying it, not because it's banned or politically incorrect, but because the gay person is our neighbor and gratuitously hurting someone is wrong.

It's one thing when an elderly white relative moans about how hard it is to remember not to say "colored people" anymore. But we don't expect this kind of thoughtlessness to spread unchecked into the public square.

Because that's what it really is--thoughtlessness. Not thinking hard enough about the words we use and the harm that they can cause. Think of the insidious way in which Nazism, one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth or any other century, has been repeatedly and lazily used for comparisons. We hear this appalling misuse in phrases like soup Nazi, grammar Nazis, and feminazis. Further, every time Saddam, Assad, or any other brutal dictator stops being our guy and starts being the enemy, he is routinely compared to Hitler. (A brutal dictator like Chile's Pinochet, who assumed power after "our" September 11, 1973 coup, was not.)

The appeasement at Munich is trotted out every time we want to warn about some opponent's slippery slope. Every undeclared war, every "regime change," is compared to the sacrifices our forebears made in World War II--"would you not have stopped the Nazis??" T-shirts depicted George W. Bush as a terrorist, and Barack Obama is portrayed as a totalitarian intent on taking away our rights and guns. As a consequence, the original horrors have lost their power to shock.

After hearing about "Hitler" every five minutes for an entire lifetime, how are we supposed to recognize fascism when we actually see it?

The thoughtless misuse of words is not free speech. Freedom of speech is the freedom to call out, object, have rational argument, and protest. It involves choosing words and thinking about the consequences before we use them. In some world orders, the consequences of protest include being carried out on a stretcher.

When we hear a man longing for those good old days, we must not call that political incorrectness. We need to call it what it is, and hope crying wolf all those other times has not robbed the right words of their power.

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