WHAT’S in a word? Everything. In a week when miners have been brutally executed, the US Capitol mobbed, and tens of thousands have succumbed to Covid-19, it seems strange to suggest that language matters. But how we speak defines how we act, on personal, political and policy levels. Recognising this is the first step toward meaningful progress, even justice.
This idea is not new. George Orwell stated it most eloquently in his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. Language, he wrote, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts… if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” concluding that “political chaos is connected with the decay of language”.
This conclusion was evident in the semantic soup that Americans found themselves in on Wednesday. Were those storming the Capitol vandals? Rioters? Seditionists? Insurrectionists? Was their act a coup or, as their emblazoned clothing suggested, the start of civil war? US president-elect Joe Biden strongly denounced the notion that the mob was protesting. “Don’t dare call them protesters. They were a riotous mob. Insurrectionists. Domestic terrorists… It’s that simple.”
That Biden flitted between terms to describe the mob emphasises that nothing about that event was simple. But his statement recognised that the words mattered, not least because it directly influenced the way in which law enforcement responded to the incident.
Label it right, and you can judge it.
There has been widespread critique of the security response — too slow, too timid. Police reacted to the mob as if they were protestors; hence Biden’s need to make the distinction. Protest is a legitimate form of civil society activism; it is the articulation of a fundamental democratic tenet: that elected officials are public servants and that they must be held accountable. Protests, when interpreted as a demand for accountability, cannot be aggressively suppressed.
Many comparisons have been drawn between the security response to the Capitol mob and recent Black Lives Matter protests. This should not have been a surprise; the bias was already built into the language. The BLM movement has consistently been branded in Trumpian discourse as terrorism, anarchy, thuggery. It has therefore been subject to security responses befitting terrorism: large-scale, pre-emptive deployment of law enforcers, mass detentions, intimidation, shootings.
The manipulation and marauding of language is the defining aspect of Trump’s presidency. White supremacists and far-right violent extremists have been relabelled as patriots, and liberals are terrorists and agitators. Anything anti-Trump is labelled Antifa; the catchy acronym meant nothing pre-Trump, and now means anything that he says it does. Even Covid-19, which has claimed over 369,000 American lives, has been dismissed as the ‘China virus’.
The problem is not uniquely American. This week, the Chinese embassy in the US came under fire for trying to rebrand alleged mass sterilisaiton of Uighur women as a ‘reproductive health’ initiative and form of ‘emancipation’.
Closer to home, we were reminded that words matter when mourners were rebranded blackmailers, and a request for recognition, for justice, was recast as a coercive demand. Pakistan has long struggled with the policy implications of language. Who is shaheed? Who is foreign-funded? Who is a traitor? Who is a patriot? The way we have wielded language has enabled domestic terrorist groups to run rampant, emboldened militants to contest elections, transformed persecuted religious minorities into national security threats, and victims of sexual harassment into defamers.
Language matters more now that we’re all living in a virtual world. For many, the search term or hashtag they use will define what (mis)information they are exposed to. Our use of language is how algorithms recognise us, our biases, our inclinations, that either perpetuate or sell us things to entrench them.
The poor and inaccurate use of language has long been linked to the spread of conspiracy theories. But it is now time to focus on how language influences state policy and its implementation. In this context, accurate language is essential for accountability. Label it right, and you can judge it.
According to the Global Protest Tracker, there were more protests underway before the pandemic than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But we are not capturing the extent of global discontent, as many protestors are labelled terrorists and traitors, their grievances suppressed or criminalised. Trying to mask endemic political and socioeconomic failings through dizzying verbiage may work in the short term. But the demand for accuracy, transparency and accountability is mounting. And as Orwell said, if our language is accurate we can “think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration”.