by Ed Kinane
Linguistic habits are often important symptoms of unspoken sentiments.
Twenty five hundred years ago Confucius taught that to reform society we must
reform our thinking. This requires reforming our language. Confucius said we
need to call things by their real names. Language shapes thinking which in turn
In a similar vein, in 1946 George Orwell wrote an essay, Politics and the English Language. In it he emphasized the link between good political thinking and the habit of using clear and precise language. Orwell argued against using clichés, jargon, bureaucratese, and unduly abstract or esoteric words. He saw these as serving a conscious or unconscious political agenda: avoiding accountability, obscuring truth, mystifying power relationships.
Id like to add some notes here on this theme. Maybe they can help us think more crisply about political issues.
WE/OUR. Whether in writing or speaking, I often use we without
making clear just who we refers to. Frequently you can get away
with that. But things get murky when, a sentence or paragraph later, our we
refers to an entirely different group and one that doesnt include
us. Or even one that violates our values and shreds our rights.
Our very language has us identifying with such entities. Its insidious: I catch myself saying, Were in Iraq, or The main thrust of our foreign policy is to corner the worlds oil supply. What I mean of course is: The US military is in Iraq or The main thrust of US foreign policy is to corner the worlds oil supply.
WAR IN IRAQ. All too often these days the recent invasion of Iraq is referred to as the war on Iraq. The war isnt just some bloody spasm that went on for three weeks this past spring. It began back in 1990 with the UN/US sanctions against the Iraqi people. Such sanctions responsible for the premature death of hundreds of thousands and for the further consolidation of Saddam Husseins regime were only tentatively lifted in June. An alien military machine now occupies Iraq and Iraqis are violently resisting it. Both the war and the invasion continue.
AMERICA. Feminists, especially, are sensitive to the power of language. They
have taught us, for example, how using male generic language helps perpetuate
sexism and patriarchy. A parallel and neglected problem is the
habit US folks, reactionary and progressive, have of calling the US by another
More than one Latin American has expressed to me her annoyance about this. Equating the US with America reflects an unfortunate political reality: yes, the US empire extends throughout the western hemisphere. But this is a reality we Latin America solidarity activists struggle to change.
Making the US/America equation and expropriating the term American strikes Latin Americans as a way of consecrating the status quo. Its a way of further consolidating US hegemony. This usage is so entrenched that it takes an effort of the will to change it. Karen Hall a frequent PNL contributor refers to US people as US Americans. Such a phrase is no more wordy or awkward than African Americans. Or South Americans, Central Americans, and Latin Americans.
PRESIDENT BUSH. The mainstream press and many US Americans habitually refer
to George W. Bush as President Bush. There again such usage consecrates
an invalid and oppressive status quo. Lets recall: Mr. Bush was not elected
Also: lets avoid referring to Mr. Bushs upcoming re-election campaign.
DEMOCRACY. I can do no better than to quote Orwell:
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 the 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 [sic] own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.
Another such never-defined word is freedom as in Were
fighting for Iraqi freedom.
As we go to press, Ed is returning to Baghdad to resume work with Voices
in the Wilderness. When in Syracuse, he helps edit the PNL.