September 01, 2006

More on tainting and misuse of language

Purely from a linguistic point of view, I'm interested in how language is used by different groups in bids for power. Media and politics are the usual battlegrounds here, and, as a kind of followup on my previous post, I came across historian Juan Cole's views on the use of a more recent trendy word; appeasement.

And today, I found this:
Night Owl's Appeasing Republicans gives a brief outline of exactly who the prominent American "appeasers" were in Hitler's day (hint: They weren't Democrats).
Now, I don't want to get into politics here, but I do find this interesting. Also, the Internet makes it possible to investigate for oneself and check facts rather quickly.

And apparently, the next word on the list is fascism. This use of language, rhetoric and propaganda really make a powerful and urgent case for education as developing the bullshit-spotting instinct, as well as a memory for history. And here's someone else who seems to think so, too.

1 comment:

Cleve said...

Yes interesting stuff indeed, especially these days. I'll guess you've seen George Lakoff on framing, language and politics.

It's funny because I get more pissed off when "my side" misuses language (I just expect misuse from the opposition?!). We're trying to initiate dialogue and convince with reasons, and my fear is that when we misuse language, it then gives them an excuse not to explore our thinking carefully - they can just cry foul on the misused language.

A perfect example is the Olbermann video. Thanks to your link I read the transcript, and it was pretty good - except where he implies that Rumsfeld is a fascist ("this country faces a new type of fascism indeed"). That one-sentence misuse of language gives the opposition the hook they need to dismiss the argument in its entirety (which is what they have done).

These are misguided tactics - the extreme language cuts off dialogue, and critics can now call us unhinged. The only benefit is that it riles up readers that already agree - preaching to the choir. But it doesn't help dialogue.

Another example of this was the "violence in the classroom" meme that I (over) reacted to last year (sorry). I agree with the motives behind the thinking, as I do with Bush/Rumsfeld criticism, but what happens in the classroom is not violence (and Bush isn't Hitler and Rumsfeld isn't a fascist). What happens in the classroom is horrible, as is US foreign policy - why misuse language through hyperbole and give the very audience we're trying to convince a reason not to trust our judgment?

I think that maybe our brains give us a secret neurotransmitter-delivered thrill with this type of exaggeration. Watch a audience react to the Bush-is-Hitler message - you can see the adrenaline surge. It gives us peaceniks an excuse to release the extreme emotion of self-rightuous fury. (And maybe that's why we've got the "9-11 was a government conspiracy" meme spreading now - the idea is thrilling, like a Hollywood movie.) But just because it feels good doesn't make it tactically sound - all it does is further polarize, and political discourse regresses to the schoolyard "I'm not, you are" level.

Just my own two cents worth :-D