Language as Weapon


We grew up on the adage “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

This disrespect for language—its meaning and impact—has made the muddling of our social relationships much easier to accept or ignore. The empty phrase “I’m so sorry”—uttered by CEOs explaining their ill gotten wealth vis-à-vis the lost livelihoods of downsized employees, insurance companies denying lifesaving claims, Catholic bishops forced to revisit their obscene protection of pedophiles, or politicians trying to defend reversals of campaign promises—is no longer believed by most. Yet it continues to claim its place in social discourse.

Within the intimate, supposedly safe context of family life, parents too often mimic the distortions, half-truths and outright lies of the larger society. Secrets “protect a family’s honor” even as they destroy a child’s future. Well-meaning adults utter phrases such as “I just want you to be happy,” “I only want what’s best for you,” or “You’ll be the death of me,” without regard for how their words impact their child’s self-esteem and future ability to function.

Commercial advertising is one place where this distortion of language has grown particularly flagrant. On millions of television screens, words and images join forces to push exaggerated implications, faulty reasoning, and false promises about an ever-greater range of products and services.

Whatever the small print, this misuse of language elevated to a science or an art form has us believing this automobile or that exercise machine will make us younger, thinner, more successful, even happier. “Ask your doctor if Nexium (or Zoloft or Zantex or one of dozens of other medications) is right for you.” Our healthcare is now thoroughly driven by the pharmaceutical and insurance companies. For both, language manipulation is essential to growing profits.

It is in the international arena, however, that this intentional distortion is being used most dangerously to co-opt our thought processes, secure our allegiances, and promote our willingness to go along with policies that will ultimately do us all in.

Consider the “war on terror”.

Decades, indeed centuries, of foreign policy that privileges U.S. greed over the lives and well being of others, depends upon getting us to believe we are “fighting for democracy,” “working for the greater good,” or “doing what’s right.” Patriarchal warmongering, racist concepts of difference, and ideas of Manifest Destiny have been important to the promotion of these policies. Lies about language provide the mortar that holds it all together.

Take the Arabic word jihad. Since 9/11 our politicians and press have translated this word to mean holy war, more specifically a holy war waged against anyone who is not Muslim or of the Islamic faith. No matter that this is not its meaning. Muslims, as dismayed as the rest of us at what a group of fundamentalists did on September 11th, 2001, have explained again and again that jihad does not mean what the thought-shapers claim it means.

The most accurate and moving definition was given recently by Mariane Pearl, widow of murdered journalist Danny Pearl: “Jihad is the name of a process that can be undertaken successfully only by a courageous person. A jihadi fights with himself or herself in what I, as a Buddhist, think of as a personal revolution,” Pearl writes.

“It doesn’t involve demonstrating in front of TV cameras or murdering innocent people. It is a slow and difficult process in which one seeks to overcome fears, prejudices and limitations to defend justice and […] allow our personality to expand and blossom so that we can fully contribute to society at large.”

And so it goes. In the language wielded by our government officials, “collateral damage” describes the death of innocent civilians. “Rebuilding Afghanistan” means keeping control of that nation and its people. Support of Israel’s genocidal war against the Palestinians is articulated as “working towards a solution in the Middle East.” “Waging the war against terrorism” may mean anything from toppling a democratically elected government to dropping bombs followed by food packages on children.

Language is important because it is through language that we exchange ideas, do battle with one another’s beliefs, identify ourselves and name what we are willing to do to defend our earth and justice for those who live upon it. Language gives birth to attitude, policy, and action. In order to understand one another, we must listen to the real meanings of one another’s words rather than to the intentionally misleading translation offered up by those who intentionally mislead.

If we do not stop and pay attention to the language we use, sticks and stones and nuclear weaponry and yes, also words, may yet break our bones and obliterate life on our planet.

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