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February 07, 2006

Harry Belafonte and the politics of language

In 1946, George Orwell published his classic essay Politics and the English Language which is something that anyone interested in politics or writing should read because of the deep insights that Orwell provides about how to learn to write clearly, and the ways that language can be abused, especially by people trying to use it to serve political ends.

I was reminded of this article again by the flap created by Harry Belafonte when on a visit to Venezuela he called Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world." (UPDATE: Harry Belafonte's visit to Case today has had to be rescheduled to an as-yet unspecified date since he is giving a eulogy for Coretta Scott King.)

Critics have seized on his use of the word "terrorist" to condemn him. In this effort, any attempt to define the words "terror" and "terrorism" are carefully avoided because to do so is to risk finding that Belafonte might be onto something. Orwell points out that this is an old problem.

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

Here is the current version of this old problem. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word "terrorist":

1. As a political term: a. Applied to the Jacobins and their agents and partisans in the French Revolution, esp. to those connected with the Revolutionary tribunals during the ‘Reign of Terror’. b. Any one who attempts to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation.

2. Dyslogistically: One who entertains, professes, or tries to awaken or spread a feeling of terror or alarm; an alarmist, a scaremonger.

Even if one is given the freedom to tweak this definition to suit one's own purposes, it is hard to objectively get the result that the user of such words is usually seeking. I recall a conversation with someone many years ago about the same word terrorism and to whom that word should apply. Instead of simply assuming that persons A, B, and C were terrorists and that X, Y, and Z were not as that person was doing, I asked that person to first come up with a definition of terrorism that did not do too much violence to its common meaning and then see how that definition applied to the different people. That way, one had a measure of the degree of terrorism perpetrated by any given individual or group.

It turned out that the person was unable to come with a definition that avoided the awkward result that either one or more of the people he approved of being labeled as a terrorist or a person he disliked not making the list. This problem existed even though he already had decided before trying to define the word who should be labeled a terrorist and who should not be. (The comic strip The Boondocks identifies a well-known person whom it would be hard to exclude under almost any objective definition of terrorist. And yet, most people would reject that label being applied to him.)

(This definition problem is similar to the demarcation problem that exists in science in which philosophers and historians of science have found it difficult to come up with definitions that have both necessary and sufficient criteria that enables one to judge whether a given theory is scientific or not. The problem is that all such definitions result in either something that is commonly accepted as being science being excluded or something that is clearly not accepted as science being included.)

Because of this, words like terrorism and democracy are used dishonestly. They have become political weapons. As an example, some of you may have observed how the language of reporting changed during the run-up to the attack on Iraq. National Public Radio reporters followed the lead of the US government and started referring to the Iraqi government as "Saddam Hussein's regime" and to the members of his cabinet and armed forces as his "henchmen."

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "regime" as: "A manner, method, or system of rule or government; a system or institution having widespread influence or prevalence. Now freq. applied disparagingly to a particular government or administration."

And "henchman" is defined as "The personal attendant, ‘right-hand man’, or chief gillie of a Highland chief; hence, generally, a trusty follower or attendant who stands by the side of his chief or leader, and supports him in every case of need...A stout political supporter or partisan; esp. in U.S. ‘A mercenary adherent; a venal follower; one who holds himself at the bidding of another’

Using these definitions, one could just as easily refer to the US government as the "Bush regime" and to Cheney and Rumsfeld as his henchmen. But that is never done by the mainstream media. Not because it is not accurate but because these words have ceased to have any meaning and are now just verbal weapons, to be used only against political enemies.

As Orwell says:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

If Orwell were still living, he would have as a fresh example the phrase "collateral damage" to euphemize the "killing of innocent civilians."

Once one has become sensitized to the way political language is used, one can see its abuses everywhere. As Orwell says: "Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." When it is not used in this way, "it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a "party line.""

This is why outspoken people like Harry Belafonte have to be lauded. They are rebels because they use language to say what they honestly think, and to clarify rather than obscure. Such people are seen as dangerous because they cause us to question our assumptions and the way we use language, and the way language is used to mislead.

POST SCRIPT: Some light relief

With all the bad news recently on the international and domestic fronts, one needs a little humor to get through it. So here are some items for your amusement.

* A greatest hits compilation of Bush's bloopers, which includes the ever-popular "Fool me once."

* I have always been intrigued by the ability of technology to change images pixel by pixel so that one image gradually morphs into another. See this for one of the best applications to politics.

* And check out this satire about the NSA wiretapping. (On a serious note, I have been linking recently to the excellent posts of Glenn Greenwald on this issue. If you want to hear the clearest spoken exposition of why the NSA wiretapping is illegal, watch him respond to a caller on the C-Span program Washington Journal.)

* And finally, The Daily Show has a hilarious report that thanks to one American hero who stood up for his free speech rights, it is now legal to moon people in Maryland. So not all the news is bad on the civil liberties front. Or should I say back?

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Comments

Persuasive speech is often most effective en masse when it is vague because it allows the audience to use their imagination and "fit" the political message to their own cognitive schemata.

In this posting I feel like you portray the vagueness of political speech in a negative light. While it may seem negative in this terrorist example I think it is important to draw a line noting that vague speech is not the enemy, the message is.

Political speeches with vague titles like "I have dream" can be positive and great examples of the kind of leadership we hope for. Again, the vagueness of the message can be more effective because it allows the audience to "fit" the message to them personally. When used for positive gain this vague speech is wonderful.

Posted by Aaron Shaffer on February 7, 2006 01:03 PM

Aaron,
I think we can differentiate between the "vagueness of definition" and "vagueness of message."

I think the latter, things like King's "I have a dream" speech are not so much vague as they are broad in scope and vision. This is logical to me, because to talk about our aspirations and goals as a society, we can't just pinpoint a specific issue such as "one child left behind" and expect it to solve a larger systemic problem. We should instead view the problem broadly, both to understand potential solutions and to sell them to the voters. (One child left behind was marketed as a broad concept, but not enacted as such)

"Vagueness of terminology" reflects on our understanding, cognition and personal experience. Our forebears fighting the Brits in the revolution could easily be called Terrorists. They had to rely on guerrilla tactics to win the war. It just so happens that we agree that this was a good cause. So instead we call them revolutionary heroes. Either term is intrinsically correct, but would not always be interpreted as such.

So yes, George and his henchmen are terrorists. Whether this is true in both the literal and implied definition however is a matter of opinion. The folks on the conservative blog and I would probably hold differing ideas on that matter!

Posted by cool on February 7, 2006 05:32 PM

I'm not sure I'd characterise the "I have a dream" speech as vague. Sure, its title was a platitude, but in the speech MLK set out a quite specific—and at the time, radical—exposition of what his dream was.

Posted by Eldan Goldenberg on February 7, 2006 05:44 PM

The trouble with Orwell's essay is that everybody thinks it condemns the other side, and vindicates their own. It's easy (and sometimes helpful) to shoot holes through political pronouncements, and to point out slippery or dishonest uses of language -- but one must acknowledge the fact that speech is speech: it isn't as precise as writing, and much of what one says depends for its meaning on context, tone of voice, present audience, recent events, and common (even if technically incorrect) usage.

Also, the remark that one could just as easily refer to Cheney and Rumsfeld as "henchmen" is specious. You're free to think of this as a correct usage, but you're in the vast minority in thinking so; and that minority status ought to prod you to ask whether your analysis of language isn't just doing the bidding of your politics.

Posted by on February 15, 2006 04:48 PM