Monday, January 16, 2012

Words As Weapons

Having already established the fact that language is never “objective” or devoid of a point of view, it is also important to recognize that many political/social battles are waged through language. This is, for example, the basis of the phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Members of oppressed groups may attempt to change the terms by which they are labeled in an effort to reshape their identity (highlighting, perhaps, features that are more desirable than those invoked by traditional terms); while some members of the dominant group may resist such a change as they feel that the words with which they are familiar have suddenly become “politicized.” Then, of course, there is the question of in-group use of derogatory terms (I addressed use of the n-word here).

These are, perhaps, the most obvious examples of language as a political-social instrument. But there are many more subtle ways of employing language for political ends. Often this occurs through the use of “loaded words.” Certain words and phrases have been accumulated so much baggage through the context and history of their use (for example, when accompanied by imagery or ideological symbols; when included in the constitutional rhetoric of dominant ideologies; when used in the midst of significant events or in the speech of memorable orators; etc.), that their mere utterance invokes a whole assemblage of emotions, symbols, ideas, and memories. I would cite as examples:


“Loaded words” are used to create associations between particular objects/people/projects and all of the ideological baggage embedded in the word. The effect is to induce people to respond emotionally, to focus more on the ideological than the real, and circumvent effective discussion of issues. For example, when the justification given for a particular U.S. military intervention is the “spread of democracy,” U.S. officials (or their media spokespersons) are side-stepping any consideration of the real potential impact of the actions on the target population, precluding any detailed cost-benefit analysis, and of course, covering up the real motive for the intervention. And much of the U.S. population will gobble up any justification that involves their beloved “democracy,” whatever it means in practice.

Obviously, the desired associations may just as often be negative, and this is where I finally get to discuss the word “radical.” But in my next post.

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