Krauss: Words Don’t Matter

Appropriate note of caution and the need to consider context and interpretation:

At the bottom of the copyright page of the latest editions of Roald Dahl’s books, a new notice now appears. “Words matter … The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvellous characters.”

On the surface, it seems whimsical and innocuous. However, it signals a recent effort carried out by his publisher, Puffin, to rewrite his classic texts to make them less “offensive.” Words like “fat” and “ugly” have been culled, whole phrases rewritten, and, of course, gender-neutral terms have been added in places.

While highly reported on in the media, this rewriting of classic literature is just the most recent manifestation of a central facet of the new dangerous trend to label language as a form of violence, under the guise of the very mantra that introduced the new bastardization of Dahl’s work: Words Matter.

As a writer, one might think I would be more sympathetic to this claim, but I am not. I recognize and celebrate the potential power of words, but I understand that whether this potential is manifested depends completely on the recipient. The pen may be more powerful than the sword, but only if the words reach a receptive audience. There is a fundamental difference between verbal assault and physical assault. The impact of the former, as potentially harmful as it may seem, lies purely in the mind of the listener. Not so for physical violence.

Saying “Words Matter” or “Words have Power” is like repeating the old mantra “Knowledge is Power.” But that doesn’t make any of them true. Knowledge alone confers no power, however much we might wish it were so. Ask most environmental scientists, or reflect on the fate of the ancient Librarians of Alexandria. It is what you do with the knowledge that matters. The same is true for words.

T.S. Eliot also wrote, in his masterful poem Four Quartets 1, “Words, after speech, reach Into the silence.” Words disappear after they are spoken. The only place they may persist is in the mind of the listener. What we do with the words we hear is uniquely determined by a combination of culture, experience, education, and conscious or subconscious reflection. At a very basic level, each of us has the power, at least in principle, to parse and interpret what we hear, and, if necessary, to do so in ways that positively benefit our psyches and our lives, or, alternatively, in ways that may cause emotional pain and trauma.

While Eliot may have also bemoaned the slipperiness of language in the lines from Four Quartets quoted above, part of the power of words at the same time lies in their ability to be imprecise, vague, and even disingenuous. Language must be interpreted, and that opens up a host of opportunities. It is also why we must all interpret what we hear or read.

Noam Chomsky once said to me, when we were discussing religious beliefs, “I don’t care what people believe. It is what they do that matters.” Beliefs can influence actions, of course, and so can words. Words have the power to incite violence, but this depends on the receptiveness in the mind of the listener. The call to jihad may motivate a suicide bomber, but for those whose minds have not been prepared for years through exposure to religious dogma and indoctrination, it falls on deaf ears. Similarly, most of us could see through the lying hyperbole of Donald Trump on January 6th, 2021, but those who then gathered outside the US Capitol Building were already true believers and were primed to act.

Without context and interpretation, and unless one chooses to internalize them, words are impotent, and that gives us power over them, not vice versa. We may be influenced by what we read or hear, but we own our responses, including our actions, which, after all, speak louder than words.

This notion is anathema in the modern world, however, because it implies that if you feel traumatized or offended by what you hear or read, it is primarily your problem to deal with. The trauma may be very real, but the underlying psychological issues and healing processes are ones that you, not others, need to take primary ownership of. You have not been victimized; you have been traumatized. There is a difference.

It is relatively well known that I am an atheist, but I also grew up in a Jewish household. For much of my professional life, neither of these factors made much of a difference. However, that has been changing, due in part to the fact that antisemitism has been on the rise. I am beginning to see pejorative comments online about my being a “Jew.” On a societal level, this is certainly a worrisome trend, but on a personal level, it means absolutely nothing to me. My reaction is to immediately discount the rest of what the speaker has to say, while at the same time feeling a bit sorry for their stupidity and ignorance.

This response is probably cultural. While I was young, whenever I saw signs of antisemitic exclusion, like some club not accepting Jews, it seemed that Jews had banded together to build a nicer club down the road. The response to antisemitism was not a sense of victimization, but rather an incentive to be better and do better. Such a material response may be a luxury of circumstances that is not available to all, but the psychic response is always available. Die Gedanken Sind Frie (“Thoughts are free”), after all.

It is also important to note that words are not static. Their meanings evolve over time as language and culture evolve. Rewriting the words of speakers or writers of the 17th century, or the 1950s, so that they adhere to the cultural sensitivities of the present time robs us not only of great literature but also of historical perspective. Repeating the mantra “Words Matter” as a rationale for censoring words or silencing others, is often simply code for “Coddle Me.” To edit Roald Dahl or Ian Fleming, so that young adults are never exposed to words or situations that might not be considered appropriate for popular discourse today is to stunt their intellectual and emotional growth.

Censoring and other strictures on language are not the solutions. Rational discussion and even ridicule are. Words themselves can be the greatest tools to alter the impacts of other words. After all, words aren’t, or shouldn’t be, treated as if they are sacred. Allowing them to be said out loud often robs them of their power. In 1972, the comedian George Carlin was arrested for disturbing the peace for performing a routine in which he described the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”:  “shit,” “piss,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “cocksucker,” “motherfucker,” and “tits,” expressing amazement that they could not be used regardless of context. He later said:

I don’t know that there was a “Eureka!” moment or anything like that … It’s just impossible to say “this is a blanket rule.” You’ll see some newspapers print “f blank blank k.” Some print “f asterisk asterisk k.” Some put “f blank blank blank.” Some put the word “bleep.” Some put “expletive deleted.” So there’s no real consistent standard. It’s not a science. It’s a notion that they have and it’s superstitious. These words have no power. We give them this power by refusing to be free and easy with them. We give them great power over us. They really, in themselves, have no power. It’s the thrust of the sentence that makes them either good or bad.

The next time someone says “words matter,” ask them why. If they say it is because words can cause them harm or offense, suggest they consider growing up. That, too, may offend, but maybe those words, and a subsequent discussion, can also do some good.

Director Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, described the purpose of many of their skits:

Use your brain, use these things. That was essential to Python, as far as I was concerned. And causing offense was a part of that. It’s to shock people. To shock them out of their complacency, their timidity, their caution in life. Be bold, fall on your face a couple of times. It doesn’t hurt that badly. You bounce back up. It’s okay.

A recent gripping Quillette piece extolled the courageous writing career of Salman Rushdie and discussed his newest book, Victory City, published six months after he was stabbed on stage in August 2022. The title of the Quillettearticle, “Words Are the Only Victors,” refers in part to the final words of his heroine as she buries her record of her city’s final moments of destruction in a clay pot beneath the earth.

In a world governed by hate and irrationality, it may be true that in the aftermath of violence, words may be the only victors. But in a world where words are treated as if they are both weapons and attackers, and where we shield ourselves from them for fear that they might induce feelings in us that we don’t like, we don’t become the victors—we only further victimize ourselves.

Source: Words Don’t Matter

Ontario Human Rights Commission seeks input on derogatory street, building names

Strikes me among all the human rights issues, this one has to be one of the least important.

Not optimistic that this exercise will result in sensible recommendations that acknowledge historical wrongs but don’t erase our history and historical understandings.

And of course, focussing on names and monuments is easier than addressing economic and social disparities between and among groups:

The Ontario Human Rights Commission is seeking the public’s input as it develops a policy statement on the display of derogatory names, words and images, including the names given to streets and landmarks.

The commission says it wants to address what it calls a “quickly evolving issue” that has increasingly seen Indigenous and racialized communities call for the removal of statues of historic figures “perceived as colonizers, slave owners or who advances racist policies.”

It also points to growing calls for officials to rename roads, buildings and other institutions named after historic figures, for the same reasons.

The organization notes such concerns are not new, noting it was involved in a 2018 case that required the City of Mississauga to remove all Indigenous-themed mascots, names and images not related to Indigenous sports organizations from its sports facilities.

It says human rights law has found that images and words that degrade people because of their ancestry, race, or ethnic group may create a poisoned environment and violate the province’s human rights code.

The commission says the policy statement will focus on the legal obligations of organizations to prevent and address discrimination against Indigenous peoples, racialized communities and possibly other protected groups in situations involving the display of derogatory names and images.

“What’s in a name? Often, everything,” Chief Commissioner Patricia DeGuire said in a statement.

“We continue to hear about communities disturbed by the name of a street, a sports team, a building or a monument. This policy statement is being designed to help foster better understanding of the human rights issues involved, and to prompt communities to work together in a respectful way to overcome these issues.”

Those who wish to weigh in on the issue can complete an online survey or email the commission before Oct. 22.

Source: Ontario Human Rights Commission seeks input on derogatory street, building names

The Weight of the Words: Levy – Niskanen Center

Good long read  by Jacob T. Levy of  McGill University on the importance and impact of words. Excerpt is with respect to impact on the public, article covers the full range:

….Within the electorate, the speech of elites matters in a couple of different ways. A large part of the population begins with a tribal sense of what team they’re on, which side they support, but relatively little information about the substantive policy views associated with that. Thanks to Trump’s Twitter feed and Fox News (and the strange reciprocal relationship between them) the Republican and conservative rank and file now have an unusually direct, unusually constant source of information about the things that people like us are supposed to believe and support. I think that we can see the effect of this in the rapid and dramatic swings in reported Republican opinion on questions from free trade to Russia policy. Trump’s stump speeches and unhinged tweets, and Fox News’ amplification of them, are changing what Republican voters think it means to be a Republican. He doesn’t speak for them; how many of them had a view about “the deep state” two years ago? He speaks to them, and it matters.

One example is the attack on the mainstream news media–“fake news,” by which Trump means nothing more and nothing less than “news outlets that aren’t subservient to me.” There have always been media outlets of different political colorations, and there have always been elected officials who disliked and feared media outlets critical of them. The delegitimation of the basic enterprise of independent journalism is something else, and something new to the US. In their important new book How Democracies Die, the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point to the delegitimation of the independent press as one of the key warning signs of a genuine would-be autocrat. They note the parallel between Trump characterizing the media as the “enemy of the American people,” his expressed desire to “open up” libel laws, and his “fake news” campaign and the words that preceded action in democratic breakdowns elsewhere. We don’t know how far Trump will be able to go in his attempts to suppress the media, but we know that he’s persuaded millions of Republicans to let him try.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about why Republican elites who presumably know better (like Paul Ryan) seem to have become fully complicit in the administration’s attack on the Russia investigation, fully willing to help conceal, impede, and obstruct when they don’t themselves know what the investigation will find. (If you’re the target of an investigation, you roughly know what you’re guilty of and what you’re not. Paul Ryan has no earthly idea what Trump or his circle have done; why risk having someone else’s unknown crimes hung around your own neck?) The popular theory is that they got their tax cut, and they’re willing to pay any price for that. I think that’s wrong, and underestimates Congressional self-interest. I think the answer is, at least in part: over the last year Trump has successfully radicalized the Republican electorate, with his words, in their support of him personally. Congressional Republicans who, a year ago, were still at least trying to keep Trump at arm’s length don’t dare to anymore. Trump has successfully belittled, marginalized, and demonized his occasional critics among Senate Republicans, with his direct line to the Republican electorate (and, again, as always, its amplification in the Trumpist media). The absurd drumbeat to “release the [Nunes] memo,” by its very absurdity, reveals Trump’s current power over Congressional Republicans. A year ago, more of them would have objected to delegitimizing the FBI. But Trump has successfully communicated to his voters that being on their team means not being on the FBI’s team. He’s changed what being a Republican means.

And he’s trying to change what being an American means. The power of elite speech in a democracy is only partly that of giving partisan cues to one’s supporters. It’s also the power to channel and direct the dangerous but real desire for collective national direction and aspiration. Humans are tribal animals, and our tribal psychology is a political resource that can be directed to a lot of different ends. The alleged realism of those who want to ignore words will often point to some past president whose lofty rhetoric obscured ugly policies. Whether those presidents are named “Reagan and George W. Bush” or “JFK and Barack Obama” varies in the obvious way, but the deflationary accounts are similar; there are blunders, crimes, abuses, and atrocities enough to find in the record of every American president. But all those presidents put forward a public rhetorical face that was better than their worst acts. This inevitably drives political opponents crazy: they despise the hypocrisy and the halo that good speeches put on undeserving heads. I’ve had that reaction to, well, every previous president in my living memory, at one time or another. But there’s something important and valuable in the fact that they felt the need to talk about loftier ideal than they actually governed by. They kept the public aspirations of American political culture pointed toward Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.” In words, even if not in deeds, they championed a free and fair liberal democratic order, the protection of civil liberties, openness toward the world, rejection of racism at home, and defiance against tyranny abroad. And their words were part of the process of persuading each generation of Americans that those were constitutively American ideals.

Trump’s apologists are now reduced to saying that his speech has been worse than his actions so far, the reverse of this usual pattern. The effect is the reverse, too. When he tells us that there are “very fine people on both sides” as between the Klan and their critics, he turns the moral compass of American public discourse upside-down. He channels the desire for collective aspiration into an attempt to make us worse than we are. The norm against publicly legitimizing Klan-type explicit racism was built up over a long time, calling on white Americans to be better than they were, partly by convincing them that they were better. The norm is still strong enough that Trump grudgingly kind of walked back his comments after the Charlottesville protests last year. But a norm that was built up through speech, persuasion, and belief can be undermined the same way. Trump’s own racism, his embrace of white nationalist discourse, and his encouragement of the alt-right over the past two years have, through words, made a start on that transformation….

via The Weight of the Words – Niskanen Center


When words become weapons, repression follows: Paris

Good column by Erna Paris – words matter:

It appears we can become accustomed to anything, provided it’s repeated often enough. What may have appalled us last year, or the year before, eventually loses its edge and is rendered normal. Think of the way highway speeding ratchets up as drivers accelerate to maintain the faster flow of traffic.

Something similar happens with language. Words accelerate. Without thoughtful restraint, they are like speeding cars, prone to accident.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, there existed a tacit consensus in Western pluralist societies that generalizations about race and religion might be destructive to the public good: the living memory of 20th-century atrocities largely sufficed to keep the most extreme animosities in check. These unspoken taboos were frequently breached, but racist speech was ordinarily frowned upon and usually did not sink deep roots. When the protective umbrella of taboo failed, as in the former Yugoslavia after the death of Josip Tito, for example, predictable violence ensued. Words matter, especially when they emanate from people in high places.

Since 9/11 and the advent of “the war on terror,” open, or dog-whistle, anti-Muslim rhetoric has increased exponentially as taboos have loosened. In the immediate aftermath, governments in Russia, China and elsewhere were happy to label their troublesome minorities “terrorists,” thus whitewashing repression. It became common to hear insinuating generalizations about Muslims.

Just last month, Statistics Canada reported that hate crimes against Muslims rose 60 per cent in 2015, alone. This is not surprising. That year encompassed Stephen Harper’s niqab and “barbaric cultural practices” initiatives. It was also the year of the failed Quebec Charter of Values that directly targeted Muslims.

With his darkly nativist rhetoric, U.S. President Donald Trump has upped the ante. He need not attack directly; in order to communicate his discriminatory message, he need only exact a travel ban on people from six predominately Muslim countries, or make atavistic speeches about the decline of Western civilization, as he recently did in Poland. We don’t yet know where his unfettered rhetoric will lead. What we do know is that he has opened Pandora’s Box – the place where we have historically guarded our protective taboos. From his White House perch, he has liberated people who used to keep their prejudices to themselves, if only for fear of social reprobation.

Citizens in liberal democracies expect their leaders to wield power responsibly and – excepting the rhetorical opportunism of Mr. Harper and others, such as Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch – Canadians in high places usually do. That’s why it was particularly troubling to see Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard fall into a trap last month when he said, with regard to a terrorist act perpetrated by a Quebecois: “Unfortunately, you cannot disconnect this type of event – terrorism – from Islam in general.” Since Mr. Couillard is said to be a history buff, it is odd that he did not understand the import of language that conflated the entirety of Islam with the acts of a few. Wouldn’t he have known that the biblical texts of all three Mosaic religions contain writings in support of both war and peace, depending on one’s preference? It is not a defence of violence to note that, across history, all three religions have traversed periods of extremism, such as the Spanish Inquisition (Christianity) and, more recently, the fanatic Jewish settlers in Israel’s Occupied Territories whose religious claims to the land eschew the rights of others.

Mr. Couillard claimed to be echoing a speech made by French President Emmanuel Macron, but the situation in France is not comparable. France has miles to go before there is trust enough to enable co-operation between its Muslim population and the country’s political leadership, while in Canada, mutual co-operation already exists to a high degree. When Mr. Couillard held Islam and the Muslim community responsible for the acts of some of its members, he accelerated the traffic on the rhetorical highway, encouraging bigotry.

My husband, Tom, likes to rail about the damage that’s been done across time by the little word “all” – as in “all Muslims are ‘X’” or “all Jews are ‘Y.’” He’s right; words are not innocent. We are each responsible for maintaining the civility of public discourse, but people in positions of leadership hold a special trust. They set the rhetorical standard. And they must be held accountable.

Source: When words become weapons, repression follows – The Globe and Mail

When a Phrase Takes On New Meaning: ‘Radical Islam,’ Explained – The New York Times

More on language and terminology, another good piece:

When I asked Mr. Hamid [a scholar at the Brookings Institution] this, he countered with a different question. Given how many labels already exist to describe terrorists that draw on Islam, why insist on this one?

He listed several — “radical jihadists, Salafis, Islamist extremists, jihadis, jihadi-Salafists” — none of which, he said, carry the baggage of “radical Islam.”

But if it’s that baggage that repels scholars, it may also be what draws others. “Radical Islam” has come to imply certain things about issues that are closer to home than abstract terrorist ideology: political correctness, migration, and the question of who belongs.

Those same issues have animated debates over terrorism and terminology in other societies. In Germany, “multiculturalism” has become shorthand for larger questions of how to absorb migrants and whether there is a degree of minimum assimilation. There is endless sparring over “British values,” and what sort of burden this puts on migrants before they will be welcomed into society.

France has had its own parsing of “radical Islam,” though the fight over “secularism” is even fiercer.

Even majority Muslim societies have had versions of this same argument, Mr. Hamid pointed out. In Egypt, he said, the struggle over terms is, in part, a way of litigating whether parties like the Muslim Brotherhood are ideologically akin to terror groups — and therefore whether they should be allowed to participate in society.

What these debates have in common is that arguing about how to define terrorism becomes a way to push and pull the contours of national identity, determining who is invited in to that identity and who is kept out.

In every case, the debate is framed as one of pluralism versus security. Pinning terrorism on “multiculturalism” or non-secularism or foreign values or “radical Islam” all portray inclusiveness as somehow threatening and exclusiveness as safer.

The question of whether pluralism and security are indeed in tension, or whether pluralism in fact enhances security, is one that people around the world have long grappled with. But it’s hard to discuss because it is so core to national identity. Debating semantics is much easier.

Source: When a Phrase Takes On New Meaning: ‘Radical Islam,’ Explained – The New York Times

Minorités: des mots offensants retirés des lois américaines | États-Unis

Updating to reflect language and culture changes. Curious to know if anyone has examples of Canadian laws that need similar updating:

Les lois fédérales américaines ne comporteront plus de termes désuets et offensants utilisés autrefois pour désigner les minorités.

Le président Barack Obama a signé un projet de loi proposant de supprimer plusieurs de ces mots, dont «Nègre» et «Oriental», vendredi, a indiqué la Maison-Blanche.

Ces deux expressions seront remplacées par «Afro-Américain» et «Asio-Américain».

Le projet de loi a été adopté en février par la Chambre des représentants et la semaine dernière par le Sénat. Aucun représentant ou sénateur ne s’y est opposé.

Les termes visés par la législation apparaissent dans des lois des années 1970 tentant de décrire les minorités.

Dans la Loi sur l’organisation du département de l’Énergie, la phrase «un Nègre, un Portoricain, un Indien d’Amérique, un Esquimau, un Oriental ou un Aléoute ou un hispanophone d’origine espagnole» sera remplacée par «Asio-Américain, natif d’Hawaï, natif des îles Pacifiques, Afro-Américain, Hispanique, Portoricain, Amérindien ou natif d’Alaska».

Les mêmes mots seront aussi remplacés dans la Loi sur le développement et les investissements dans les travaux publics locaux, qui remonte à 1976.

Source: Minorités: des mots offensants retirés des lois américaines | États-Unis