August 2008

Dangerous Words

by Thomas Vincent

There are certain words in the lexicon of American English so emotionally charged that when they are used, grown men and women seemingly lose their ability to reason and regress back to elementary school playground personas. I am not referring to the late George Carlin’s famous “7 words you can’t say on radio or Television.” I am talking instead about words used to describe perpetrators of acts of horror. I call these dangerous words.

Take the word terrorist.

For obvious reasons, since September eleventh, the word terrorist has taken on a whole new meaning. It is now used as shorthand to lump together in a group, people who have nothing in common but the fact that they have engaged in a horrific act.

But it is a dangerous word.

Branding a person a terrorist allows us to conveniently remove their humanity, automatically transforming them into a monster, capable of unspeakable acts of unmitigated evil. So powerful has this word become in our language that even legal modifiers like “suspected” or “alleged” can’t soften the negative effects. Consider a headline that reads: “Soldiers today blew up a building in Iraq, killing 10 suspected Al-Qaida terrorists”. Who among us, having witnessed the Twin Towers fall, doesn’t feel, at least a little bit, that those “terrorists” – suspected or otherwise – got what they deserved. Small matter that they never got a day in court; or may have had nothing whatsoever to do with 9-11. They are… terrorists.

For another example, consider the phrase: child rapist. The recent Supreme Court case concerning a child rapist who received the death penalty is a good example of how far we are willing to go towards those who commit ugly acts that touch our emotional buttons. The fact that Court only ruled against the death penalty in this case by one vote shows how tenuous hold on reason even the most rational among us holds when facing emotionally horrifying acts.

The use of emotional trigger words like child rapist may serve a useful psychological function, allowing us to distance ourselves from the horror of the acts themselves. By relying on these trigger words to frame our world view, however, we run the risk seeing others as something less than human. In my opinion, when we cease to recognize the humanity of others, no matter how horrible their crime, we lose a piece of our own humanity. When the newspapers brand someone a “Child Molester”,we form an instant visceral image, our critical faculties become neutralized, and we find ourselves agreeing with nightmare punishments like GPS collars capable of emitting Taser like shocks.

It is understandable of course that we should naturally feel revulsion towards heinous acts, especially ones reinforced by horrific images of planes crashing into skyscrapers and exploding into fireballs of jet fuel. It is curious, however, that the mere words used to describe one that is even suspected of such acts should carry such power to change the way we think about those who commandeered and crashed the planes.

Emotional words are dangerous. We should be wary of using them and especially wary of the effect they have on us and those around us.

Perhaps the granddaddy of all emotionally laden words is the term Nazi. Since the second world war, Nazi has become such an iconic label that merely putting it in a sentence evokes an emotional response. For those who lived through the horrors of World War II, it has become a powerful symbol of evil. For those of us steeped in war comics and movies it conjures up images of Jack-booted soldiers – complete with monocles, riding crops, and really bad German accents – bent on inflicting pain and enjoying it.

Even now, the word Nazi remains a potent symbol in our culture; so much so that even 65 years after the war is over, the U.S. Justice Department maintains an office devoted solely to hunting down anyone even remotely associated with Nazism.

It is dangerous enough when we use iconic words that have evolved naturally in our language. But when such words are created out of whole cloth by governments the phenomenon takes on truly Kafkaesque dimensions.

Take the term: enemy combatant.

Enemy Combatant is a legal term of convenience, created by the Bush administration to deal with an inconvenient group of people. Basically, anyone not wearing a uniform, who points a gun at a U.S. soldier, can be labeled an enemy combatant. Enemy combatant has been used to justify a whole laundry list of human rights abuses ranging from indefinite detention – without trial, evidence or even charges filed – to even death sentences handed down by military tribunal.

And what is the reaction to this term of convenience? Strangely enough this word has become powerful in our culture precisely because it carries no emotional significance at all. If you call a person a mime you’d get more of an emotional reaction than if you labeled them an enemy combatant. To be an enemy combatant is to be stripped of your humanity without even the benefit of hatred from your captors. At least child rapists get some emotional response from society. Enemy combatants get nothing. No fear. No loathing. They don’t even get the social identity afforded a common criminal.

Could this be the opposite side of the dangerous word coin? A word without affect or emotion, a label so devoid of emotional content that it gives society carte blanche to treat those branded with it as non-persons. Animals in orange jumpsuits, caged in by razor wire.

Words without emotion. Perhaps these are the most dangerous words of all.