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Friday, April 25, 2008

Bush's Anti-Terrorist Language Reform

Having failed in defeating Osama bin Laden with military weapons, the Bush Administration has decided to give a linguistic reformation a go. Perhaps because of a misguided belief in Orwell's thesis that political language can determine political thought, the Bush Administration has decided that we should no longer call Al Qaida a "movement." One wants to ask whether it was okay to call them that right after 9/11 but not now? Was it ever okay to call them that?

Bush doesn't want us to see Al Qaida as "an organized effort by supporters of a common goal, a leader of the labor movement," as Answers.com puts it.The reason, of course, is that there is no evidence that Al Qaida is organized in the way that the labor movement is. The problem is that the Bush Administration has been using the threat of concerted actions by members of Al Qaida to destroy us for the last seven years to scare us into letting him do whatever it is he wants to do to kill them off -- undermine our civil rights, engage in torture, etc. So, unable to defeat the Bogey Man, Bush now tells us that there is no Bogey Man. Good luck with that.

According to the AP story I am referencing
Federal agencies, including the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counter Terrorism Center, are telling their people not to describe Islamic extremists as "jihadists" or "mujahedeen," according to documents obtained by the Associated Press. Lingo like "Islamo-fascism" is out, too.
The reason is that
Such words might boost support for radicals among Arab and Muslim audiences by giving them a veneer of religious credibility or by causing offense to moderates.
Since bullets, bombs, and other weapons of war have failed to kill bin Laden or those who practice terrorism, it seems that we will use language. The AP story continues with this amazing statement:
Language is critical in the war on terror, says another document, an "official use only" memorandum circulating through Washington.
Maybe these people didn't get the memo most children get that sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me. I hate to be the one to break it to our government officials, but our linguistic reforms will have no impact whatsoever on the actions of those who hate us for this, that, or the other thing.

One of the reasons that we are so widely hated in the Muslim world is that we are occupying several Muslim nations, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait. Another is that we are killing ordinary people in Afghanistan (and maybe Pakistan as well) and Iraq who have never shot a bullet in our direction, committing the very crime that we accuse terrorists of, namely the killing of innocent civilians. Perhaps we do not do so deliberately but the law in the United States reserves cells for those who kill without the intent to kill. At the very least, this counts as Involuntary Manslaughter.

I'm afraid that the Bush Administration thinks that a linguistic reform will achieve what he has not been able to achieve with his sticks and stones. It may help to ease the fears of domestic Muslims but to think that seriously is an insult to these Americans. They are not as stupid as our Bush Administration linguists. What the Bush Administration might think of trying is such things as (a) an even-handed approach to Israel and Palestine, economically and militarily, (b) a withdrawal of our troops from Iraq and Kuwait, and (c) a determined effort to get Muslim states to join with NATO in the effort to root out the terrorists along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. If we cannot get them to join us, then that will be pretty good evidence that we should consider withdrawing from that country as well. The fact is that the correct way to deal with terrorism is to see it as a policing problem. Where training camps pop up, I would suggest asking the host nation to destroy them with or without our help using carrots (money) and sticks (uninvited strikes by American special forces units), when carrots don't work. It would be a simple thing to tell countries that if they host such camps there will be consequences.

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21 Comments:

Blogger ben said...

Since bullets, bombs, and other weapons of war have failed to kill bin Laden or those who practice terrorism, it seems that we will use language.

We've killed a lot of terrorists. UBL ain't the only one. We're still using counter-insurgency strategy and tactics and to great effect. Are you seriously proposing that we've stopped military efforts in favor of linguistic reforms? I say that because most of your post depends on that patently ridiculous idea.

Maybe these people didn't get the memo most children get that sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.

So... can we finally admit that all the UN resolutions and UN sanctions and stern worded warnings of further sternly worded warnings were completely worthless? If we could have skipped that crap and gone into Iraq six months earlier, the damned insurgency wouldn't have had time to dig in!

One of the reasons that we are so widely hated in the Muslim world is that we are occupying several Muslim nations, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait.

If we're so hated, why don't they attack us? When the Israelis were perceived as invaders of Islamic holy land, they were attacked by half a dozen countries. I've got to wonder: is this really hate, or just a bunch of speeches and rallies by dictators who need a scapegoat for the failings of their own oppressive regimes.

Another is that we are killing ordinary people in Afghanistan (and maybe Pakistan as well) and Iraq who have never shot a bullet in our direction, committing the very crime that we accuse terrorists of, namely the killing of innocent civilians.

Yet the Iraqi government continues to work with us. Maybe they know something you don't.

4:09 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

Yo, ben, I am making fun of the Bush Administration. Read my language posts and you will see how silly all this language reform is.

They have attacked us. The Cole, two WTC attacks (including the 9/11 attacks), two embassy attacks in Africa, as well as Lybia's attack on the air plane over Scotland, murders of diplomats.

The governments of these countries we are in do not object publically but other muslims do.

You do not have a very subtle way of thinking. Very literalist and you seem to miss the point.

5:23 PM

 
Blogger ben said...

I'm not convinced you had a point. I think you're trying to have your cake and eat it too: start out with some snark about how dumb the admin is (well everyone knows that!) and then lecture us on how to solve the Middle East crisis. I really do understand how hard it is to put an article together, especially on political issues. And I've been reading your blog for a while, so I know you put a lot of thought into most of your pieces. I just think you do yourself an injustice when you write something as insubstantial as this and say "hey, I was just kidding."

And it's unfortunate that you write that you know how I think from my style of writing. The web has been around for how long now, haven't we figured out now that people are liable to misinterpret you when they're bouncing around twenty or so pages?

7:34 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

Please forgive my testy reply but you missed the point of the blog, or one of them, perhaps. Check out my blog on Orwell
and think of what I have written here about the proposed language "reforms."

They seem to buy into the the totally false Orwellian thesis that the terms you use to refer to something can determine what you think about it. So, their language reforms are rather silly.

Moreover, they are pernicious since the Administration used references to an Al Qaida with international reach via cells of believers (= movement) to scare the wits out of our less bright fellow citizens. Now the Administration says it doesn't exist as a movement. That would be fine if they argued that they have destroyed Al Qaida's organization and that is why we should not talk about such a movement. But you and I know that they have not done so. Therefore they only thing that has changed is the proposed language reforms. It is silly beyond belief if you know anything about language and cognition.

Please do keep arguing with me. I like have some give and take.

7:10 AM

 
Blogger Bilbo said...

While I agree with your basic "sticks and stones..." contention, I do disagree with your contention that such linguistic shenanigans are meaningless or misguided. The fact remains that in the Islamic context, "jihad" is an honorable thing, even though some believers use it to justify the most terrible of crimes. If we use the word, or forms of it, to describe criminals and criminal activity, we avoid a needless way of giving offense to moderate or fence-sitting Muslims. I absolutely agree that we need a more even-handed Middle East policy (and have been saying so for many years), and I have said from Day One that our misadventure in Iraq was a tragic mistake. But I do believe very strongly that language can be a useful arrow in the quiver, and one that can backfire if not used correctly.

7:18 AM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

I agree that we should not be using language that inflames the Muslim population, as when Bush used the term "crusade" early on in his self-described "war on terror." In the case of "jihadist" I believe that it is the terrorists who use it primarily. When did any American of any consequence use it? That is an information question in that I would like the answer. Certainly we shouldn't be using it because it isn't accurate. I don't really think that mainstream Muslims would take anything from such language choices except a belief that we are dimwitted, which tends to be true.

11:23 AM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

Hey LG, just thought I'd drop by again. I have a couple things to say about this post.

I would think that Orwell's thesis has some validity, although I have had much less formal education than you on the subject. If a propaganda war had no effect, then it wouldn't be done so often. I think the idea that it might offend Islamic moderates seems to be a sound idea, and a sound reason to abandon those terms. That it's not a "movement," though, seems to be a rather silly thing to say.

Like I said, on that I'm not the expert, but on your claim of involuntary manslaughter, I think I am. For involuntary manslaughter, you generally need to act with the mens rea of at least gross negligence, although I suppose in some places it might be plain vanilla negligence. In any case, you would still have the absolute defense of self defense, or defense of others. You have the right to use force to repel force, non-deadly with non-deadly, and deadly with deadly, to put it in the simplest terms possible. You have this defense to any homicide crime if you reasonably believe that you or someone else is in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm. This applies whether your belief was correct or not, as long as it was reasonable. But I guess my point is that you grossly over-simplified things.

Anyway, as always, it's a pleasure to read your posts.

5:57 PM

 
Blogger ben said...

Wow, blogger really doesn't want me to post. Third time lucky: yup, I take it for granted that there are people in any organization whose job is to make ritual pronouncements. They are the modern equivalent of high priests of old, our motivational speakers, counselors, marketers, political consultants, and, yes, even prescriptivists. (Really, aren't all those rules they make up just a lot of magic incantations in scientific clothing?) So, mea culpa, I latched on to the policy side of it. In my defense, your point didn't go over my head so much as under my radar.

11:35 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

Kelly, the phrase "has some validity" is pretty problematic. As logicians use the word, something is valid or not valid or meaningless. Maybe in ordinary language we have a scale of validity.

In fact, when I said that how we talk influences how we think, I am saying what I think you must mean by "has some validity." The important point is that how we talk does not determine how we think. If it did, we might all think the same way.

7:27 AM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

This is the one habit of yours of which I know which I find somewhat irksome. That was a completely off-topic reply, tending to devolve the discussion and attack the aspects of others' position which have no consequence, when we all know what is meant. It's simply one step above an ad hominem attack.

I wasn't using "validity" in the same way logicians use it. What I meant was I would guess, if it could be studied, we would find some relationship of statistical significance between language and the way people think. When I said "some validity," I merely meant I am not sure how strong the effect is, i.e. it may not be as strong as Orwell supposed.

Now, again, I am not claiming to be an expert, but I seem to recall learning (whether in communications, anthropology, sociology, or psychology course work) certain language groups more readily think in certain ways. For example, in speakers of languages with more emphasis on gender (e.g. Hebrew), people are more conscious of gender. Is this not true? And, if this is true, does it not follow the phenomenon is not limited only to gender? A caveman with a caveman's language certainly does not have the linguistic tools to even appreciate this question. The tools affect the way we work, yes?

9:36 AM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

Kelly, I didn't mean to irk you and am sorry I did. The problem with "validity" is that it is used so differently by people in different traditions that it has become useless. Logicians have rapped my knuckles for using it in the way you did.

There is not disagreement between us. I cheerful agree -- earlier blogs actually asserted (see Orwell blog) that language can influence how we think. The problem is that we can't quantify it.

You seem to be getting at the original Whorf and Sapier thesis that different languages have different grammars and underlying cognitive assumptions and these could lead to fundamentally different ways of thinking. This thesis has been roundly refuted. That is the deterministic thesis that Orwell grabbed on to that got people so exercised.

Calling whatever it is we are involved in a "war on terror" versus a "fight against terrorists" would likely lead people to take different views of it, especially if it was constantly hammered into their heads, as it has been by Bush. We are not in a war on terrorism but we are fighting against them using both military and police methods.

12:18 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

No worries. It was only mildly irksome.

Whorf-Sapier. That was what I was trying to think of.

I'm not sure I understand you. It seems you are saying, on the one hand, the hypothesis is incorrect, and on the other hand, it is incorrect. Does language affect the way we think, but not "fundamentally" (whatever that means)? So it's a question of degree?

1:03 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

Oops, I meant incorrect and correct. I'm sure you understood.

1:04 PM

 
Blogger concerned citizen said...

Perhaps because of a misguided belief in Orwell's thesis that political language can determine political thought,...

Language in politics can't be discounted, that is for sure. If you want to experience politically correct Orwellian type language, get involved in a human rights/human dignity group. As an example, one of the political groups that I'm involved in caters to immigrant or more correctly illegal immigrant minorities...this group in all the groups I'm involved in, is the worst for wanting to use politically correct language.

Personally, I don't think manipulating language is the right way to go. It makes you appear dishonest to everyone involved even if you are well meaning & It detracts from addressing the real issues.

BTW, do you have any post on language & the illegal immigrant issue? I looked in your archives but i didn't see any.

8:26 AM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

concerned, you are quite right that any unusual use of language will likely be viewed suspiciously. As for the term "illegal immigrant" I am certain I have blogged on this but I too can't come up with a blog. Maybe the next time it pops up on the radar of the country -- it won't be long -- I will do so. I seem to remember writing about "undocumented worker" and "illegal immigrant." The problem is that "illegal immigrant" doesn't seem accurate for certain cases, as when someone comes over on a student visa and works as a teaching assistant, for instance, and then after four "documented" years goes "rogue." They didn't come in illegally but at a time begin staying illegally. "Undocumented worker" is less pejorative and just as accurate and thus allows for less inflamed discussions.

4:14 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

Language never determines thought in the sense that we hare unable to defend against it. "We hear it and we knee jerk respond" doesn't happen. Is it a matter of degree as to the matter of language influencing thought? Probably that is as good a way of looking at it as any.

4:17 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

I'm just riding the tangent here, but I'm not sure the term "undocumented worker" is totally accurate, for the reason it only applies to people who actually work.

(Now, I'm just going to assume that we're talking about Hispanics here, because no matter how much we don't want it to be a racially-charged issue, they are the major group of concern on both sides of the debate.)

Many Hispanic women don't work outside the home. I don't know how politically correct we want to be on the issue, but perhaps "worker" doesn't accurately describe a homemaker. Also, children may also be immigrants, and young children certainly should not be "workers," but instead should be students. In addition, there is a very small portion of these immigrants who are making their living by doing illegal activity, and I'm not sure whether "worker" is an accurate way to describe them (maybe it is, as far as the IRS is concerned).

In any case, I'm not sure "worker" accurately describes everyone in the group we are speaking about. "Undocumented" is probably as good as "illegal," maybe better. A good term should accurately describe the entire category to which it refers, I would think.

LG, your contention they don't become an "illegal immigrant" merely because they overstay their official welcome is, I think, inaccurate. They don't cease to be an immigrant at any point in their life, as long as they stay in a country where they were not born citizens. And at the point they go "rogue," they become "illegal" (or "undocumented").

The only reason we don't like the term "illegal" is because it has criminal connotations. I think the term "worker" is inaccurate, and I see no problem with the term "immigrant."

So, I would think a useful term would be a compromise: "undocumented immigrant." I'm sure I'm not the first to say so.

4:34 PM

 
Blogger concerned citizen said...

kelly, I like "undocumented immigrant" it broadens the base of the argument a little more, because you are right it is Hispanics who are the major group of concern on both sides of the debate.

We are doing a voter survey & one of the questions involves a ballot initiative that basically targets the Hispanic community in that it deals with requirements for rights to obtain a drivers license & also requirements for voter registration. In discussing this initiative using the term "illegal immigrant" seems to immediately plant an idea in some peoples minds that closes any opportunity for further dialog or food for thought.

8:52 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

"Undocumented immigrant" is perfect. It allows us to make distinctions as to why they are undocumented -- overstaying a visa vs wading across the Rio Grande. It is very important not to think of this only in terms of Hispanics. There are two reasons for this. One is that there are many different types of immigrants. Right now the main concern is Hispanics but others come here without documents from Europe, including Eastern Europe, Asians, Haitians, Africans, etc. The other reason is that while many Anglos keep telling me that this is "our country" the fact is that it is as much the country of Hispanics and it has been since before the colonies united. Santa Fe was established in 1685. San Diego was established in 1765. So, lets not get on our high horses about this.

7:48 AM

 
Blogger concerned citizen said...

It is important not to think of this only in terms of Hispanics. I have had to struggle with that myself & work to understand the broader implications of the current anti-immigrant backlash. This discussion has been very helpful, thanks, lg & kelly.

Come to think of it...I've known quite a few "illegal Canadian immigrants" & I also remember when we had our own "illegal draft dodging immigrants" back in the day.

3:14 PM

 
Blogger David E Stevens III said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:39 PM

 

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