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One Word at a Time

September 18, 2006

As I watched the president’s speech from the oval office last week I was impressed by the White House speech writers’ grasp of the power of language. The president told us on this fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks that we are “safer but not yet safe” leaving us suspended in flux at some undefined level of secure.

He said “since the horror of 9/11, we’ve learned a great deal about the enemy” lumping all people and groups who have used terror tactics into a single entity thatis easy to hate and hard to understand.

He called freedom “the strongest weapon in our arsenal,” morphing one of our most cherished ideals into a tool of war instead of a beacon of hope.

As the president’s message flowed over the air waves, I could see a vision of the world take shape before my eyes, a vision of the world that does not match my own. In fewer than 3000 words the White House took a day of memorial and turned it into a rallying cry for war and a political jockeying point. The power of words realized.

As the spheres of our individual lives have expanded, connected by the Internet, email, international news, a global community that has become more interdependent and intertwined, the impact of the language we use has expanded as well, shifting our reality from an experiential one to the reality painted by the words we read or hear.

In an editorial last week, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson said,

“Words are all we have to give shape to reality, and because we had no words for what happened five years ago — by definition, language falls short of the unimaginable — a new lexicon had to be developed. I am convinced that much of this new language, by accident or design, has the effect of clouding our view of our enemies and ourselves. We need to begin choosing our words more carefully, and we need to discard the ones that do not serve us well.”

We have yet to make those choices. Words like “terrorist,” “radical,” and “fundamentalist” haunt our vernacular allowing us to escape the question of who people are and what conditions in our global community have given such momentum to dangerous fanatical movements. Such easy labels also avoid the difficult task of finding the language to describe the conflicts and tensions, and hoped-for solutions that our society faces today.

George Soros made a similar reference to the way the language we use has affected our narrative in a Wall Street Journal editorial last month. He said,

“The war on terror is a false metaphor that has led to counter productive and self-defeating policies. Five years after 9/11 a misleading figure of speech applied literally has unleashed a real war fought on several fronts . . . a war that has killed thousands of innocent civilians and enraged millions around the world.”

Mr. Soros goes on to point out that people in America unquestioningly accepted that this figure of speech was the obvious response to the attacks of September 11, 2001 and that the only front was a battlefield. Now we are faced with three words “war on terror,” (glibly shortened into an acronym (WOT) for easy and efficient use), that encapsulate a failed U.S. foreign policy.

Our words tempered our world view long before September 11 though. Think about the way that policy makers have described some of the social challenges we face; the “war on poverty” can be traced back to LBJ, the “war on drugs” originated during Nixon’s administration. Imagine the world today if the resources poured into the war on terror over the past five years had instead been applied to the “war on poverty” or the “war on drugs.” Of course in reality you can’t fight poverty or drugs with guns and bombs and soldiers in body armor. Maybe it was this misnomer that predetermined our miserable losses in those battles. If we had used a different metaphor to describe the challenge that terrorism poses to our society would the effect have been different today?

We have our own mini campaign here at FCNL to change the way people talk, looking for peaceful alternatives to the militaristic phrases and words that are ingrained in our colloquial language. This goes beyond just demilitarizing our speech to an intentionality about the way we talk that recognizes that word choices depict our selves, the people around us, and the world we live in.

We are forever in a quest to reframe the debate, but in changing the way that we talk about the world around us and the challenges society is faced with, can we do more than just reframed the debate? Can we change the picture?

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