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