March 8, 2007


I think that Americans use words differently from one another.

If you've followed my writing for any period of time, you'd know I like to talk about the way we talk about stuff a lot. I think our language accounts for a lot of the misunderstandings about things because it's linked to something greater: culture, the summation of our collective experiences, attitudes, and beliefs.

For example, I couldn't help notice in today's
news articles on Iraq that the democrats call their ideas for removing troops from Iraq "troop withdrawal." Now, bear with me - I'm not calling it a good or bad term (just that's what they call it), nor am I asking whether or not we should remove troops. This is not a discussion on that part of morality. What I've noticed is that the way we talk about things tends to show how we feel about them, but it can also confuse other people who think about them differently.

In this instance, the democrats view "withdrawal" as a good thing. "Withdrawal" is such a nice word; it's intentional, but not harsh. It speaks of "we don't need to be here anymore." It's gentle, simple, elegant, clean.

Until you say the word "withdrawal" to a conservative republican. "Withdrawal" doesn't mean the same thing to a republican; in his mind, "withdrawal" is the equivalent of "retreat," which essentially means "they beat us." It's a bad thing. I'm speaking in broad, sweeping generalizations of course, because obviously not every republican thinks this way, nor does every democrat mean something so benign. It's an over-simplification (mostly) to make a point: how we say stuff matters.

So the democrats started using another word, "redeployment." A word many republicans don't mind so much; it too is benign, because it doesn't have the same imperative "we're leaving now" feel to it that "withdrawal" does; it's not a retreat, more like a shuffling of the deck. I think the republican agenda was like that to begin with, but somewhere over time it got lost when they discovered that 'fixing' things in Iraq was going to take a lot more time and effort than they could manage. And lots of Americans don't like the idea of staying anymore.

Another great example of the language differences, the words "a long time" mean something very different to different people. I was just reading
this news article about the troop redeployment and the title says "U.S. Commander in Iraq Sees Long Commitment." Now, when I saw the title my first reaction was "well ya think?" (I believe it'll take several generations to make the middle east into at least a semblence of non-violence, and peace another few generations). Imagine my surprise then, when I read this statement from the middle: "If you’re going to achieve the kinds of effects that we probably need, that it would need to be sustained certainly for some time well beyond the summer."

The summer?

"A long time" to me (at least, in this context) is decades, not a summer. But that's not what he meant when he said a long time. If he hadn't clarified his definition, I would've been left thinking "oh, I guess this thing is far from over" and would've been even more confused when the troops are suddenly withdrawn from Iraq long before I expected an end.

Our language matters.

This is why I try to get my news from a variety of sources, liberal and conservative. If it's possible, I try to get the same story from three or four different places, but for
some things it doesn't always happen.

Anyway, I went to a talk today by a guy named Omar. He's half-Iraqi and half-Texan. How this combination happened, I do not know, but suffice it to say he's a really nice guy. He talked about the differences between his family in Iraq/Jordan/Amman and in the USA. He said that most conservatives that's he's met (and many liberals as well) tend to think "Arab = Muslim = Terrorist." If that's true, he's half-terrorist. He said that if you think like that, then from the Arab's perspective it's "American = Christian = KKK member."

Which is obviously not so.

The language we choose matters.

Statistics, for example, are notably easy to manipulate. I can make them say anything I want to by giving certain information but leaving out certain other information, leaving the reader's own prejudices and assumptions to fill in the blanks. What I choose to say matters, but also what I choose NOT to say (in other words, what I choose to omit). If, in an article about the toll of the war, I say "3000 people died in Iraq since 2006!" it begs all sorts of questions; which people? Americans? Iraqis? Both? And then, how does that compare to other wars? How did they die? Statistics are not really reliable unless you qualify them with descriptions of where and how you got the information.

My biggest problem with the press as it retells the story of the war in Iraq is that they tend to focus on only one part of the picture. Some press tell about the death toll of American soldiers without mentioning how many Iraqis die daily. Some press talk about the cost of the war to our budget, neglecting to mention the many sorts of cost - namely, the lives of the people over there, both American and Iraqi. Some press rant about how many civilians Americans 'brutally' (yet often accidentally) kill and how we should then pull out, neglecting to mention the many car bombs specifically targeting Iraqi civilians because they're a different religion or even a different brand of muslim than the assailants.

The story is never - EVER - simple. There are many complex sides to an issue that we must always consider, and making broad, sweeping generalizations about something is rarely, if ever, a good idea.

I am the king of broad, sweeping generalizations; trust me, I'm learning this the hard way.

I've been learning this about global warming. At
one point, I said that I didn't believe that global warming was happening. I did some reading, had a few conversations, discovered that ok, there's plenty of scientific evidence to say that the world's average temperatures are climbing. Whether this is faster or slower is debatable, mind you, but temperatures are definitely climbing. I was surprised, but ok, I can accept that. Then I wondered, "what is the cause?"

So I read statistics about human pollution and SUVs from all the Greens, and then I read statistics about natural processes like volcanic eruptions and the rise in Mars' average temperatures and Al Gore's house from the conservatives, and I came to a realization: it's not really one thing. It's never JUST one thing. We might like to generalize and SAY that it's one thing, but it's not. It's EASIER to say it's one thing and blame it on one thing, but unfortunately for our peace of mind, there are ALWAYS multiple causes for any given situation, any number of causal chains that led to a specific occurance.

To say that it's all one person's fault or all one demographic's fault or even all of one species' fault is entirely wrong. To what degree each element effects the outcome is something we can debate another time, but that's not the point: the point is, let's try to understand the whole picture before we go placing blame or rush into rash actions that will have huge impact on everybody. We've been given this planet to look after, our fellow men and women to look after; we need to honor that responsibility for its complexity.


Rob said...

Well one thing lost in the Global Warming Debate is several centuries ago we had the "Little Ice Age". Why could it not be the reverse is happening? No matter what humans are doing.

And heck according to PETA the cows are a greater threat to global warming than any car or factory.

Rob said...

Oh and welcome to the ever-present debate in a historians mind. Can you ever imply monocausality.

And if you do - how many other historians throw a brick through your window...

Chris said...

Just goes to show you that a couple of centuries isn't really enough time to judge EITHER end of the spectrum because global environmental events take a LONG time to happen. I heard that the volcano in Italy (stromboli, I think it's called) puts out enough CO2 and CO in one eruption (and it erupts every 20 minutes or so, or at least it did ten years ago) to equal the output of every SUV in the world for a day. Not sure how accurate that is, but it's not too surprising to me. I also heard, more recently, that even if Australia stopped EVERY CO2 emission it has - cars, industry, the works - China would surpass them within five years. Now, the green movement is going to have a lot of trouble getting China - who just INCREASED their industrial output yet again - to start cuting back. It's a real problem.

cruz-control said...

some very good points made here, bro.

language is so powerful. i'm immediately reminded of Winston Churchill's use of propaganda during World War II. Painting an 'enemy' in a certain light can be a huge advantage in war. And when you combine propaganda with group think, it can potentially be a dangerous recipe. This was Hitler's method as well.

After 9/11, the United States wanted war. We wanted a feeling of safety and protection that comes with being the superpower we are. War was the way to get that protection back, so no one questioned going to war. We wanted it badly.

But now, people are weary and can't decide how they can best get that "protection" back. One political party is touting war as necessary for "protection," the other is saying that there is another way... but we can't quite pin down exactly what that is. Hence the diverse opinions on the military conflict we are currently engaged in. But then enters propaganda... some call it the War on Terror, others call it an occupation. Both put labels on the issue to skew the argument in their respective directions. But neither side will agree that they are still as scared as they were on 9/12.

As for the global warming issue, it's the same problem. Both sides are after the same thing - the best prosperous lives for the living and their progeny. But they will never agree to agree on that. They shout across the isles of Capital Hill at one another, using words to pick up people on their respective bandwagons. And the real problems get clouded and obscured. It is my understanding from the science (a climatology class in college) that the earth is getting warmer. But it is not necessarily a bad thing, and that people are less responsible for the warming that is generally portrayed in the media. The Earth is overdue for an ice age, this warming trend that kept our nice climate stable. Most is from the earth itself.

My personal belief is that God gave us the earth to care for; we should not violate that responsibility. I also believe that as a part of God's creation, all living things are interconnected. When we harm the earth, we harm ourselves. We should not intentionally cause damage to the earth. At the same time, I think it's absurd that within 50 years we will all parish in fire and water because I (Cruz) use too much paper. There's a moderation here to be found and lived. But neither political party is arguing for "moderation" on this issue.

And its the language of propaganda that gets people riled up and jumping on the latest bandwagon. When we paint someone or something as "bad." It is very easy to get that thing (good or bad) eliminated - because in a democracy, all you need is a majority. And unfortunately, sometimes a majority just means all the fools are on the same side.

P.S. If you detect an elitist attitude in my rant, please forgive me, that was not my intent. I just hate it when people don't investigate an issue for themselves, but rather fervently jump on the last wagon a given political party drove through town.

Chris said...

Good thoughts Jon. Not elitist at all, or at least, no more than I.

I had this class once where the professor kept on us to continually ask "what's the real motivation here?" And it was never just once, we'd give an answer and he'd say "you sure?" I think that's the case with many of these issues - there are so many causes, reasons for those causes, etc. that it gets sort of lost.

I also think most issues, regardless of how true they are, tend to pick up political dimensions, just to further complicate things. Whether it be Iraq (obviously political) or global warming (less obviously political) or even faith (shouldn't be political yet it is), politics get in the way of truth. Suppose somebody publically advocates a theory as fact; what happens when that "fact" is proven wrong? The political advocate spends lots of time and money telling why they're not REALLY wrong, saying either that they were misinterpreted (ex: Clinton "it's not REALLY sex") or simply denying the opposition's argument as wrong (ex: Iraq and Global Warming). Trouble is, when it comes down to it, we don't really know who's right anymore because of the politics. Guess we have to spend more time with each issue reading between the lines.