Words are important.
Language is what separates mankind from the lower animals, that and an opposable thumb, of course.
We revere people who have used language well. From Shakespeare to Dickens to Hemingway, we admire good writing. We spend millions on the writing of people like Steven King and JK Rowling. Our children still memorize the words of Abraham Lincoln, written on an envelope at Gettysburg.
The ability to use language well in order to communicate is a prerequisite for just about any upper level position today.
Words are important.
And yet when it comes to our daily conversations, we use words as bludgeons without much regard to actual meaning or implication. A writer may spend days choosing the best word to convey a thought, but in our everyday lives we grab at anything that comes close and expect others to know what we mean. And in our political conversations we either just pass off the most recent sound bite as explanation and move on, or we use sophisticated manipulation of language to gain political ends.
Much like the misleading and often factually incorrect social media posts that were shared during the run-up to the election, we often share through repetition other people’s sophisticated manipulation of language to achieve their ends without even being aware we are doing so.
Obviously, we cannot spend days choosing our words during a conversation. Words, however, have specific meanings, those meanings are nuanced, and use of those words has implications outside of the immediate conversation itself. Words trigger emotions and they trigger pathways in our brains.
It’s easy to see, then, how the use of language and words is the very best way to divide a nation.
Today it is popular to see anyone who pays particular attention to language as an elitist. It is becoming increasingly popular to see the long journalistic tradition of our major news sources as tainted and antiquated at a time when we need them more than ever. There are words everywhere these days, but it has become popular to see the source and its political orientation as more important than the meaning no matter how poorly the words are chosen or how deceptively they are used.
Here are two words that have done more to divide us than any others: politically correct.
If you didn’t have an emotional reaction when you read those words, then you are not well -versed in the current American social climate. It is that emotional reaction that has become far more important than the words themselves, and that is why they are used so frequently. It really doesn’t matter what they mean in today’s popular culture if you react negatively or positively the moment you hear them.
Political correctness is a term which evolved with negative connotations on the political right in the 1980s and 1990s and has become a mainstay of the right’s criticism of liberals and progressives.
NOT politically correct was a main feature of Donald Trump’s campaign, and one of the most quoted reasons supporters give for liking him is that he is NOT politically correct.
The term came to be adopted as a pejorative description of anything conservatives and right-wing politicians disliked about the left, especially with regard to the Culture Wars raging over language, religion, racism, sexism, etc. All you had to do was call up the term political correctness to dismiss, out of hand, a complicated and nuanced subject.
The actual phenomenon the term was resurrected to describe (it once was used by American socialists to refer to Stalinist dogma) was a well-intentioned effort on the part of some to reduce the negative effects that language had on other members of society. It became socially unacceptable, for example, among many, to call a disabled person a spastic, or a black person a n*****, or a gay person a fairy. These terms were hurtful to those they were directed at, were derogatory by their very nature, and there was no logical reason to continue to use them. This was a social, not a political, phenomena. It was an attempt to bring about positive cultural change by helping to eliminate discrimination.
There is no question that this effort was taken to extremes in some instances, but it was a genuine social movement to reduce discrimination.
Right-wing politicians and think tanks labeled such efforts as politically correct and dismissed them, turning the term into a political weapon against a social phenomenon. In turn, they opened themselves up to a political rebuttal from the left as the left came to see any use of the term as simply a cover for people who were upset that they could no longer call others spastics, n*****s, and fairies, in other words, the bigots, racists, and homophobes.
The right, on the other hand, viewed those who sought such language change as being over-protective and sensitive, and often as ignoring the truth in the process.
How do you solve the problem of Islamic terrorism, for example, if you can’t use the term Islamic terrorist? To many on the left, this like saying how can we make fun of spastics, n*****s, and fairies, if we can’t call them spastics, n*****s, and fairies? To many on the right it is simply focusing on what’s important (eliminating terrorism) instead of not hurting the feelings of terrorists like the snowflakes on the left advocate.
In case you didn’t catch it, I chose my words and my tone there very carefully to indicate which side of this argument I personally support.
The president made a point of using the term radical Islamic terrorist (with special verbal emphasis) during his recent speech to the joint houses of congress. That came only a few days after his National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, informed those who work for him that the term was not “helpful” because terrorists are “un-Islamic.”
This makes the president look very NOT politically correct to those looking for that from him. They are Islamic, and they are terrorists, therefore they are Islamic terrorists and that’s what they should be called. The president spoke truth! And that’s another thing that we hear those who voted for Trump say. He isn’t PC. He tells the truth. But in indulging in this language, the president actually enables terrorists in their war on the west in ways that are not immediately apparent.
An important question to ask, before going any further, is: which is more important – that the president appear to not cave in to what is seen as leftist language use or putting the country, and to some measure, the rest of the world at greater risk from growing terrorism?
The members of the Westboro Baptist Church are Protestants. So, all Westboro Baptists are Protestant Christians. If I take that to mean all Protestant Christians are Westboro Baptists, I have committed an obvious logical fallacy. But what if a large segment of the country took up the habit of referring to all Protestants as Westboros? How would you feel about that?
The Westboro Baptist Church is commonly seen as a hate group. They have targeted Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, American soldiers, and the LGBT community. They have said “God hates America.”
So how would you like to be called a Westboro? Do you want to be associated with a group that thinks God hates America and that pickets the funerals of American soldiers? They are Protestant Christians, remember. Would you like that? It’s just a word, after all. It’s not important, is it?
Let’s say you don’t like that idea and I insist on doing it anyway. Let’s say a large segment of the country insists on saying it. Let’s say the President of the United States goes out of his way to associate you and your faith with the Westboro Baptist Church. How will you feel?
Well, the NOT politically correct faction would say, “Suck it up buttercup.” Don’t be a snowflake. Stop being so concerned about your hurt feelings.
The members of ISIL (and I will still use that term because it is the one they use) are no more representative of the Muslim faith than the Westboro Baptist Church is representative of Christians. If it might bother you to be lumped in with the Westboros, perhaps you can relate somewhat to how Muslims feel about being lumped in with ISIL, a group that has killed hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and twisted their religion into something wholly other than what most of them understand it to be.
Oh, but they all follow the same Koran! They are all the same! And the Westboros follow the same bible you read. Are you all the same?
This is not just a matter, however, of salving the feelings of an entire religion. There actually IS a political element involved in the use of these words.
In order to recruit new members, terror groups like ISIL rely on people who have become unhappy with the way they are treated by the west. They rely on people who think the west hates Islam. This is the recruitment pool. Every time someone lumps terrorists together with the rest of the Muslim world, those Muslims become a little more unhappy with the way they are being treated. They become a little more susceptible to terrorist propaganda.
A woman Trump supporter interviewed at the Conservative Political Action Conference recently was obviously very angry about how she hated the term “Obamacare.” “I just hate that they called it that,” she said.
Who called it that? It wasn’t the people who wrote it. They called it the Affordable Care Act. It was the Republican opposition who dubbed it that – the very people this angry woman supports and voted into office. But this word, Obamacare, stood for something larger in her mind and she hated it. She hated the word. She hated that it reminded her of a man she hated. She hated it. So she supported the people who coined it and who now said they wanted to repeal it, but she needs it to cover her doctor bills. And she seemed totally unaware of the irony involved in that.
Ask blacks if they like being called n*****s. Ask them if they hate that. Ask a disabled person if they like being called a spastic. Ask them if they hate that. Ask an American Muslim if they like seeing their religion associated with terrorist killers. Ask them if they hate that. Ask a Methodist if they like being called a Westboro.
Words are important.
The recent Department of Homeland Security assessment pointed out that the biggest threat to the country comes from those radicalized within our own country, not foreign agents coming from overseas.
The NOT politically correct folks would like to lump everyone they don’t like or agree with together under one label or another. They, like our president during his recent speech, delight in pointedly using words that evoke strong emotional responses without regard for the consequences.
It is easy to get people to hate a word and with it all they think it means.
The words “politically correct” no longer have any real meaning in this country. They are a meme that gets shared at the drop of a hat. The issues involved in word choice, however, have very real meaning to the way our country will move forward and to its very security. The words “radical Islamic terrorist” do have a very real impact on the security of this country and suggesting that they not be used is a matter of national security, not just balm for bruised feelings.
The military is well aware of this.
Dismissing that concern under the imaginary umbrella of political correctness is both dangerous and illogical.
If anything, eliminating the use of this term is pragmatically correct.
That’s just one example of how understanding the issues involved in word choice are crucial to understanding what the real intent of a communication might be.
Today the president tweeted that Obama wiretapped the Trump Tower during the election.
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
“How low has President Obama gone to tapp (sic) my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
McCarthyism. Why would a president being investigated for ties to Russia accuse a former American president of McCarthyism? For those aware of the history of the McCarthy era, that word calls up a memory of a witch hunt for communists that was one of the low points in American history. By using that word to describe Obama – and therefore Democrats – the current president is implying that his current problems are nothing more than a witch hunt by those on the left. The focus has been shifted from his wrongdoing to that of his opponents.
Nixon/Watergate. Again, the current president insists on recalling another low point in American history and ascribing it to his opposition. The hacking of the DNC servers during this past election has often been compared to the Watergate hotel break-in during the Nixon administration. By associating the Obama administration with Nixon/Watergate, he tries to shift attention away from the fact that Nixon could not survive the fallout from that action.
We are bombarded every day with communications where words are being used to mask some issues while advancing others. People who are in the business of communicating are not just grabbing at any old word that comes close and expecting us to know what they mean.
They use words like scalpels to insert ideas and issues into our minds. They use words as weapons to destroy our thought processes.
If you dismiss as elitist those who are preoccupied with the way language works and the way words impact your brain, you run the very real risk of becoming human silly putty in the hands of those who would make you nothing more than a means to their own ends.
Words are not actions, however. The old adage that “actions speak louder than words” was once accepted by everyone. Today words are used to draw attention away from actions. If you speak loudly enough and long enough and say things that are emotionally charged enough, you can draw the public’s attention away from what you actually do.
The only way to combat these techniques – both the language usage issues and the language as diversion issues – is to educate each other as to how it all works and to be constantly vigilant. We have to point these things out as they arise and not allow ourselves to be duped. We have to become pragmatically correct.
Your Humble Servant,
Roger A. Shipley, The Willowbrook Curmudgeon
If you agree with this essay or find it informative, please help spread the word and share with others.
If you would like notifications of new essays when they appear, click here and check “subscribe” on the top right.