Yesterday’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 struck a chord with me. Written and presented by Elaine Storkey, it was about the ambiguity of language and the arrogance of conceit. It’s well worth reading, but for anyone who can’t be bothered to click on the link above, here are two of the best parts:
There is nothing more telling than language for conveying differences of outlook and perception. That is very evident right now in Iraq. Even amongst the key players words tell their own story. One of the marine Commanders outside Falluja describes the assault about to take place on that city as an ‘epic battle’, whilst the Prime Minister of Iraq, declares a 60 day ‘state of emergency.’ The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan refers to an attack on Falluja as ‘an escalation in violence which could disrupt Iraq’s political transition’, whilst Lt Colonel Brandl commanding one the battalions of the American marines talks about it as uncovering the hidden face of the enemy. His words are graphic. He says, ‘The enemy has a face. He is called Satan. He lives in Falluja and we’re going to destroy him.’
So why does language offer so many perceptions of reality, especially the shape and meaning of evil? One of the obvious answers is that we are all partisan. Each of us uses language to depict our own point of view. We notice most fully the evil done to us or to our group, whilst rephrasing the evil we do to others with the language of justification and exoneration. And when this becomes habitual and uncritical, partisanship can move into self-deception. We can come to believe, at both personal and national levels, that we own the language of evil, that we decide on its use, and it is one from which we are excluded.
As if in support of Storkey’s commentary, today’s Guardian carries a frightening story on its front page that includes the following quote: “They call us terrorists because we resist them. If defending the truth is terrorism, then we are terrorists.” It seems language is also a weapon in this war.