“Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” – Dr. Louise Banks, Arrival. Ignore the fact that this quote comes from an alien blockbuster film for a minute, and think about its resounding truth.
A coup d’état.
Radical. Islamic. Terrorism.
Language might be the weapon drawn before the conflict even starts. For centuries, words have been used to divide, to group, and to add fuel to political and social fires. Evidence of primitive propaganda goes back as far as the reliable fossil record, and we’ve all seen the emotional (sometimes entertainingly so) propaganda ploys of the first and second World Wars.
Today more than ever, political buzzwords carry inherent emotional weight. Name calling—SJW, bigot, racist, sexist, snowflake—is a regular part of political discussion. Beyond the emotional impact of and reactions to the names themselves, you can’t call someone a snowflake without heralding hordes of angry blonde web show hosts and Facebook rants. It’s pretty hard to use the word bigot without thinking of someone in a bright pink hat yelling the word while holding a feminist protest sign. President Trump spent an entire year focused on some words, beating an issue of phraseology (“radical Islamic terrorism”) into the ground. Arguments and issues of our time are inherently emotionally sensitive, from issues of race and immigration to gender and abortion.
This emotional linguistics phenomenon isn’t confined to the U.S.. All over the world politics are increasingly emotional. Name-calling especially has exploded in the international political community: just last week, Philippine politicians were at each other’s throats, calling each other names ranging from “opinionated ignoramus” to a variety of colorful expletives. In Nigeria, official protest groups have issued warnings to Amnesty International, saying that AI’s accusatory name-calling has gone too far and will result in anti-NGO protests if continued. French presidential candidates Marine Le Pen and Francois Fillion have thrown mud at each other—from “liar” to “thief”—as they’ve become increasingly embroiled in an election of feelings.
As an Arabic major, I’ve spent a lot of time reading Arabic-language newspapers and watching Arabic-language TV news broadcasts. The phenomenon of emotional political linguistics is more pronounced in Arabic than it is in English. Some stations won’t even use the word “rebels” to refer to a group that the rest of the world has categorized as a rebel group, such as the Free Syrian Army. Whether an Arab journalist categorizes a clash as a “revolution” or a “coup d’état” determines massive public and governmental reactions to the event.
I’m not saying that we need to remove the emotion from the words we use, in any language, but something needs to be done about the absolute onslaught of charged names and loaded phrases that have become commonplace in political discussion, debate, and decision-making. Frankly, it’s a waste of time and emotional energy to focus on your theoretical problem with Social Justice Warriors by throwing around the term and raising the hackles of those you’re debating with. Instead, focus your theoretical energies on the fact that you’re frustrated by SJWs not because they exist, but because they take things too far, are all talk and no show (and provide real evidences), etcetera.
Unfortunately, the bulk of politics no longer revolves around the discussion of ideas, but the hashing out of emotional and moral divides. We can hash those divides in a constructive way if we distance ourselves from flashy phraseology and actually look at what we’re trying to say and support. Truly, the pen is mightier than the sword. Use it well.
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