Conservative political and social commentary
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First they came for the communists,
but I was not a communist, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the socialists
and the trade unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they
came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out. And when they
came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.
– Pastor Martin Niemoeller.
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|The Virtue of Plain Talk - Thursday, July 20, 2006
The Virtue of Plain Talk
Some will say that it was unfortunate that the microphone was left on, and a private conversation between world leaders became public. Some will say that even in a private conversation, the president of the United States should express himself more elegantly, without the use of profanity.
I disagree. I’m glad that the microphone was left open, and I’m glad that President Bush used profanity to describe what Hezbollah is doing. If terrorizing civilians, torturing and murdering those who disagree, and shooting rockets at cities isn’t a sh**ty way to act, what is? If comparing such behavior to excrement is inappropriate, then what would be an appropriate comparison?
To some people, the s-word is obscene. To me, crashing airliners into office towers in New York is obscene. Blowing up trains and buses in Madrid and London is obscene. Blowing to pieces people in a Jerusalem pizzeria is obscene. Launching rockets at Israeli cities is obscene. Hiding rocket launchers and other military installations among civilians is obscene. And making excuses for terrorists is obscene. It all depends on your definition of obscenity.
This controversy about choice of words reminds me of another such controversy. Some conservatives regret President Bush’s repeated statements about bringing terrorists to "justice." Some conservatives, and most liberals, believe that "justice" means police arresting a suspect, reading him his rights, and then complex legal proceedings lasting years, with all the protections that our Constitution provides.
But to understand the meaning of a word, one must first understand the context. Recall the president’s moving speech to a joint session of Congress after 9/11, in which he said of those who planned the attack, "We will bring them to justice, or we will bring justice to them." What could he have meant by "justice"? Obviously, he didn’t mean that we would transport the courthouse to the terrorists.
And to understand the meaning of a word, one must also understand who is speaking and where he comes from. President Bush comes from Texas. When he says "justice," he may mean a court trial, but he may also mean the end of a rope, or a bullet – or, as Zarqawi discovered, a smart bomb. The context and the speaker’s background determine the meaning of a word.
In the past, people never used the word "syphilis" and called it a "social disease." But then penicillin was developed, and people began calling the disease by its name. The same was true of cancer. For years, people said that someone had a "tumor" or a "growth." But as effective treatments were developed, more people used the word "cancer." And now that prevention is possible, everyone knows about the relation of cigarettes and lung cancer. Calling diseases by their right names is an aid to prevention and cure.
We now use similar euphemisms when speaking of another potentially fatal disease – terrorism. Many liberals, and even some journalists and news agencies, refuse to use the word "terrorist." But what else do you call people who crash airliners filled with passengers into office towers filled with workers? What else do you call people who strap explosives onto their own youths, then send them to blow up trains, subway cars, buses, markets and pizzerias?
Terrorists are called "fighters." No, Muhammad Ali was a great fighter. They are called "militants." No, Martin Luther King was a militant civil-rights advocate. They are called "commandos." No, British SAS commandos performed superbly from World War II to Iraq. How can we hope to defeat terrorists, if we can’t even name them correctly? Muddled language leads to muddled thinking, which we can ill afford in a time of crisis.
Not satisfied with misnaming our enemies, some people go on to misname our struggle. No, it’s not war, it’s merely a "criminal investigation." So instead of using our armed services to destroy our enemies, we should use the police to arrest them and bring them to trial in civilian courts. Even 9/11 is described as a "crime," not an act of war. But 9/11 killed more people than the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Fortunately, during World War II we knew the meaning of the words "enemy" and "war."
Diplomats prefer indirect, oblique references and circumlocutions. They are so worried about overstating a problem that they hardly mention it at all, even if it is severe. They are so worried about upsetting people that they hardly criticize anyone at all, even the barbaric. They are so worried about seeming to be intolerant that they tolerate almost anything at all, even the intolerable.
Lawyers can be even worse. They tend to use language as an octopus uses ink, to confuse people and obscure the truth. Diplomats who are advised by lawyers are worst of all. They make statements that are so vague and ambiguous that we are left knowing less than before. Their statements actually subtract from the total of knowledge – we learn nothing, and begin to doubt what we already knew.
Diplomats have a role to play. Polite, indirect speech is helpful in bringing opposing parties together – provided that both parties want to come together. If my neighbor and I disagree about the location of a fence, lawyers and arbitrators can help us reach an agreement. They can hire a surveyor to verify the property line. They can devise a compromise that satisfies both of us.
But what if one of the opposing parties refuses to compromise? What if I want to reach an agreement about the fence, but my neighbor openly declares that he wants to kill me, kill my family and burn down my house? What then? Diplomatic speech will only embolden him to become even more violent, because he now believes that no one is serious about stopping him.
At that point, the only hope of avoiding disaster is plain speech, and even an occasional profanity. My neighbor will think twice about coming over to kill me and my family, if a powerful authority figure tells him to "stop doing this sh**."
Perhaps we would have less to fear from violent criminals at home, and violent fanatics abroad, if powerful authority figures spoke more plainly. Perhaps we would have less sh** in the world, if people had the honesty and guts to call it shit.
Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.