Sunday, October 11, 2015

The misuse of language

by Gary Berg-Cross

There they go again.  Speaking Words Freely.  Well loosely. GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson danced around the idea of President Obama’s being a “real black president.”
“I wouldn’t even get into such a conversation,” he told host Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s “The Situation Room.” “He’s the president and he’s black. " We’re dealing with semantics," 
Sure we are, and it’s important. You don’t do language math by adding Black and President and get a real meaning for “Black President” which is a phrase that capture a whole culture of meaning.
Socrates, via Plato, is often quoted (in translation) on the impact of corrupting language. It is variously translated as "The misuse of language induces evil in the soul." Notwithstanding the metaphorical allusions to religio-philosophical concept of evil and soul we edge into danger when we express ourselves poorly or use language to disguise the true situation.  There is room enough for this in ordinary conversation when language is used pragmatically to bend the truth, or smooth things over in uncomfortable situations. It is language used in support of a “white lie.”  “I can’t make your Christening, I have a family obligation.”

But the art of group or personal spin has spilled its banks and taken on a corrupting color that is not white at all. One simple example from recent events is the inflamed phrasing such as “criminalization of ... faith” uttered in defense of Kim Davis’ actions. 
Penned in by an avaricious ad strewn society we know that the “buyer” has to beware.  But language is used to get around our conscious defenses. A hospital bill may list a $15 charge for “disposable mucus recovery system,” but this was in reality, just a box of Kleenex.

Since we are likely to hear more language bending (ads and otherwise) in coming days here are a few thoughts on just 2 types we run into:
·        Political talk and
·        Translations

A professional, routinized version of tortured language has emerged called Spinglish—a wordy, devious dialect of English (I’m sure they manifest in other languages) used by professional spin doctors. These are all around us, but a gaggle of them fly over the political scene putting reasoned speech in shadow.

It is common now as the trope of saying “mistakes were made.”  This is a  rhetorical device, allowing a speaker to acknowledge that “a situation was handled poorly or inappropriately but seeks to evade any direct admission or accusation of responsibility by not specifying the person who made the mistakes. That rose to prominence in a political context with Reagan’s Arms-for-hostage or Iran-Contra deal, but some trace of this type of thing goes back to Watergate and  May , 1973, when Nixon’s White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler confessed to what amounted to sinful, spinful lies:
"I would apologize to the Post, and I would apologize to Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein. We would all have to say that mistakes were made in terms of comments. I was overenthusiastic in my comments about the Post, particularly if you look at them in the context of developments that have taken place."

What context?  On the previous day, White House counsel John Dean and Nixon aides Ehrlichman and  Haldeman had resigned.

The impact can be substantial when false words become an active part of crafted messaging as in the case of the Watergate cover-up or just a cover for policies that would be unpopular if not protected by false narratives.   . The Platonic-era Greeks were getting a dose of this political narrative as part of Athenian democracy and more recently you don’t have to have just read Orwell’s 1984 to understand a the language has the power in politics to mask the truth and mislead the public. Contemporary politics has lots of this along with innuendo so in this era of social media megaphones it is even more important for the public to be aware of this power of false narratives.
In the current political season we depend on the media and competing parties to penetrate the language miasma. Some recent examples within the Republican contest concern people, like Trump, being allowed to imply that President Obama is a secret, and one supposes traitorous, Muslin. It is language labeling one as an enemy.  When polled Trump supporters mostly explained that they found various Trump message  pitched to a 3rd or 4th -grade level and wrapped in a pro wrestling atmosphere) appealing because it is “easy to understand”. Sure “Make America great again” has simple semantics (unless you say it in Mexican, I guess). “We know his goal is to make America great.”  This is the vaguest of ends with narry a hint of means unless it means firing a whole House of pols.  The slogan “First we kill all the lawyers” has been updated to imply that conventional, compromising pols are also included.

There have been efforts to take more nuanced stances and explore the implications of statements. Rand Paul scolded generalissimo candidate Donald Trump for “careless language” in general, while Lindsey Graham accused Trump’s language of “playing into this hateful narrative, ” and Chris Christie said Trump had an “obligation” to set the record straight, although Trump has responded that he has no responsibility for such language cleaning.  Just a matter of semantics via dog whistles one assumes.

Trump was, however, offended that Jeb Bush spoke “Mexican” recently in McAllen, Texas.  Apparentely this doesn’t make America great.  In this context “Mexican” also has dog whistle semantic overtones that fire up prejudice as Bush noted:

"Those are dog whistle terms; he knows what he's doing. These are very divisive terms. If we're going to win elections, we need to be much more open, open and optimistic, rather than sending signals that prey on people's angst."

Setting the record straight after it has whistled out is hard to do as Mark Twain noted:
“A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes.”

Our language and cultural understandings are is also challenged by neat, translations from other languages and their cultures.  So can injustices wrapped in mistranslations and misunderstood expression. Two examples”
The idea that the Koran promises Islamic martyrs 47 virgins in heaven and the Iranian threats to destroy Israel.

Virginal beings  In Islamic mythology, there is a concept of  houris (which are described in a Wikipedia section as
gazelle-eyed (woman)") or ḥūrīyah  (are commonly translated as "(splendid)[2] companions of equal age (well-matched)", "lovely eyed", of "modest gaze", "pure beings" or "companions pure" of paradise, denoting humans and jinn who enter Jannah (paradise) after being recreated anew in the hereafter.
Among non-Muslims, the concept of the houri received wide publicity as "virgins" (most usually 72 in number for each shahid) promised as a reward to Muslim shahids (martyrs), after their death. However, contrary to such reports, the Quran states that all believers (not just martyrs, and nowhere either is it said it's just men) who go to Heaven shall be granted the company of more than one houris—explicitly mentioned in the plural, and the number 72 comes from a hadith with a weak chain of narrators (i.e. less than totally reliable), and not the Quran.
Up close if is quite a bit different than we hear thrown into conversations about the motivations for martyrs. But of course, the pop image of the 72 virgins has provided a lure for corruption on an historic meaning with a fleshy new one.  Language misuse creates it own reality.

According to no less an intellectual than the very Jewish Noam Chomsky there may be a similar misreading of Iranian statements about Israel’s existence, a topic of some import in the recent arguments about a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program (see the Haaretz article  Iran Is Not an 'Existential' Threat to Israel - No Matter What Netanyahu Claims)

Chomsky, put it this way:

“To be sure, Israel faces the “existential threat” of Iranian pronouncements: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously threatened it with destruction. Except that they didn’t—and if they had, it would be of little moment. They predicted that “Under God’s grace [the Zionist regime] will be wiped off the map.” Another translation suggests that Ahmadinejad actually said that Israel “must vanish from the page of time”. This is a citation of a statement made by Ayatollah Khomeini, during a period when Iran and Israel were tacitly allied. In other words, they hope that regime change will someday take place. They do not say that they will attack Israel either now or later.”

There’s more of the translation history and its formulations in Steve Rendall’s  2012 Lost in Translation, Iran never threatened to wipe Israel off the map, which includes this:

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor agreed with interviewer Teymoor Nabili’s suggestion that the supposed remarks were never actually made. Iranian leaders, Meridor said,
come basically ideologically, religiously, with the statement that Israel is an unnatural creature, it will not survive. They didn’t say “we’ll wipe it out,” you are right, but [that] it will not survive, it is a cancerous tumor, it should be removed.
The Persian phrase Meridor was asked about, was used by Ahmadinejad in a 2005 speech in which neither maps nor wiping were mentioned. As Cole explained (Informed Comment, 5/3/06):
The actual quote, which comes from an old speech of Khomeini, does not imply military action, or killing anyone at all…. The phrase is almost metaphysical. He quoted Khomeini that “the occupation regime over Jerusalem should vanish from the page of time.” It is in fact probably a reference to some phrase in a medieval Persian poem. It is not about tanks.

Even the right-wing pro-Israel translation service MEMRI translated the Ahmadine-jad comment as “this regime that is occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time” (CounterPunch, 
As they say, "The misuse of language induces evil in the soul." So we need to not only choose our words carefully to express ourselves, but interprete them critically. It’s another hard part of a citizen’s task as issues hiding in canned phrases are thrown about.


2 comments:

Explicit Atheist said...

The Supreme Leader of Iran tweets like this "This barbaric, wolflike & infanticidal regime of #Israel which spares no crime has no cure but to be annihilated. 7/23/14 #HandsOffAlAqsa". Note that access to Twitter, Google Plus, YouTube, Facebook, etc. are all blocked in Iran so the people of Iran cannot tweet about any country via Twitter, nor can they read the tweets of their government officials. Netenyahu is correct when he says that the leaders of Iran repeatedly call for the destruction of Israel, he is not misusing language or mischarecterizing what the leadership of Iran says.

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