Politics and the US Language

by Ed Kinane

Linguistic habits are often important symptoms of unspoken sentiments.
– Umberto Eco

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 shapes action.
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.
I’d 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 doesn’t include us. Or even one that violates our values and shreds our rights.
Our very language has us identifying with such entities. It’s insidious: I catch myself saying, “We’re in Iraq,” or “The main thrust of our foreign policy is to corner the world’s 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 world’s 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 isn’t 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 Hussein’s 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 name: “America.”

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. It’s 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. Let’s recall: Mr. Bush was not elected president.
Also: let’s avoid referring to Mr. Bush’s 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 “We’re 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.