With the Republican Convention on television, all over the blogosphere, talk radio, and most newspapers for the next three days, I am being bombarded with words, spoken and written, in speeches and commentaries, in arguments and counter arguments, from everyone with a means to say something. With all that verbiage in mind, I want to narrow my focus to the words, on what they mean, and how their usage influences the message, often without our actually noticing it.
Years ago I attended a conference in which the discussion of the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn figured prominently. Alexander wrote books which contained long descriptive sections. The reason, which was the accepted position of the speakers, was that Alexander was trying to reclaim the Russian language from the paramnesia inflicted by the communists on a once proud literary heritage. He had to teach his readers what many words really meant, so he could tie his message together with that of historic Russian literature, not with the hijacked distortions of communist propaganda.
As Christians and Biblically centered people, we should readily understand the importance of the meaning of things and of the words used to describe them. Alexander’s problem and concern should be our problem and concern as we approach the scriptures, especially now with the ever-proliferating and meaning-shifting translations that pour out of publishing houses by the truckload. The Bible Gateway currently lists 19 translations in English. The Bible Research site has a regularly updated listing of those available online. One new “translation” (Good As New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures) has caused extensive debate as it seems to turn the commonly understood meaning of numerous Biblical passages on their head.
However, it is not just Russians reading Solzhenitsyn, or Christians trying to figure out the meaning of their scriptures who have to be concerned about the meaning of things and the words used to describe them. Politics has always been an arena where verbal slight of hand is an art form. To some degree we expect it, so we parse the pronouncements with a grain of salt. What has made that more difficult in recent years is the devolution of much of the established fourth estate into propagandists, advocating an agenda rather than reporting on events. (see Media Matters: A Devil’s Bargain by Frederick Turner) This they do by many means, not the least of which is their choice of words, if not their outright corruption.
Ok, where are you going with this, you ask? An article in the New York Times is what got all of this started. It was a story on Iraqi radio (requires registration) and it focused on Radio Dijla, Arabic for Tigris, which is the first station whose only programming is talk radio. It is one of the most popular stations in Baghdad and is on air seventeen hours a day. The however, near the end of the piece, is this extraordinary statement, given by Majid Salim, the host. He had asked his audience what they thought of the insurgency causing such problems throughout Iraq.
We asked them, is it terrorism or is it resistance,” he said. “A very large proportion, almost 100 percent, said terrorism. They did not like it. [emphasis added]
Why is this little anecdotal survey important? Because it belies the impression given by most of the media, who call the perpetrators everything but terrorists. They are freedom fighters, resistance, insurgents, rebels, or other words along that line of thinking. Michael Moore, well known “disingenuous filmmaker”, at least according to John McCain, has called them patriots, likening them to our founding fathers. So which is it and who has an agenda in their choice of words? My money is on the Iraqi callers as the ones getting it right and I will let you decide for yourself who are the agenda peddlers.
Now more than ever “caveat emptor” applies to everything we hear and read and it behooves us to do our best to step back and engage our critical faculties before we are caught in the spin cycle. For some additional thoughts on this subject you might be interested in my previous article Verbal Manipulation.