Language War

August 09, 2006

Here are three columns examining the language being used in the midst of war in the Middle East. The best one of the three is a piece by Tarris Rosell over at Ethics Daily. Here are a few highlights from the piece that is entitled "'Collateral Damage:' A Euphemism for Murder?":

As a student and teacher of ethics, I am interested not only in what humans do but also in how we talk about what we do. That includes the words we use, or oftentimes misuse.

... Recently I have been intrigued and chagrined by talk of "collateral damage" in war zones of the Middle East.

Language is power, and the use or misuse of language may have powerful effects.

Language describes realities, but it also creates realities. Therefore, moral creatures like us are encouraged to be careful how we use language lest we misuse it and violate other norms as well.

... But call it what you may, killing innocents is wrong.

... Calling those murders and maimings "collateral damage" is euphemistic double speak, not double effect. It is wrong—unjustified and, I think, morally unjustifiable.
A second column is by Cal Thomas and entitled "The West's language problem." It is not as clear and Thomas does not seem to be as troubled by the misuse of language as Rosell is. He, instead, wants less talk like "appropriate" and "proportional" and more killing. He even seems to suggest it is wrong to "worry about 'civilian casualties.'"

As a result, Robert Steinbeck challenged Thomas's ideas, both for lack of clarity and for the implications of the arguments. (Thanks to Bruce Prescott at the Mainstream Baptist blog for pointing out the Thomas and Steinbeck columns.)

Language is critically important. If military leaders and politicians are given complete definitional control, then sadly the killing of innocent civilians will continue virtually unchallenged. We must speak up against the misleading language used to cover and hide the killings. We must demand clarity and truth.