Words are not defined by what the dictionary says, but by how they are used in daily life. How people use words decides how they are defined, and thus another battleground is forged on the landscape of the mind.
We see it everywhere in our political discourse. One Democrat’s “Tax Cut” is a Republican’s “Tax Relief”. A “Pro-Choice” activist is a “Pro-Abortion” activist to someone on the “Pro-Life” side of the debate. “Liberal” and “Conservative” have both evolved to take on an enormous burden of political associations their definitions are incapable of supporting.
George Orwell illustrates some of the more grievous abuses in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” as employed by the former Soviet Union:
Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.
There are parallels to American politics. Such as the term “Shock and Awe” being used to describe a military strategy similar to Adolf Hitler’s “Blitzkrieg” attacks. There is the Sewage industry’s attempts to rename sludge, the leftover material from sewage treatment plants, to “biosolids.”
In the next few pages I will attempt to illustrate just a few examples of Newspeak in America’s cultural lexicon and explain the damage they inflict on our public discourse. They are not meant to advocate anything, but to start you thinking critically about the things politicians and news channels say.
Socialism and Communism: Two Words that Mean the Same Thing
To opponents of government-mitigated services the terms “Socialism” and “Communism” are synonymous, interchangeable. Abuse of the language leaves the critical mind wondering why two words exist, when they both are used with the same meaning?
To begin, we must look to their origins in Marxist theory. In his “Communist Manifesto”, Marx defined communism as an idealized utopia of communal equality, but before a society could achieve such a state, it must go through a difficult period of transition. This in-between state was socialism, characterized by totalitarian governing to oversee the transition. The U.S.S.R. and China’s People Republic, both societies that have not achieved the idealized state, were examples of Marxist definition of socialism.
But words are changed through use. Many factors redefined Communism to represent the totalitarian state, where equality is an enforced oppression. The USSR, China, and North Korea all sought communism. Communism’s opponents used the word Communism to describe the ideology. Communism became a description for both the transitional state and the end result. Marx’s failure to account for human nature, and what is now considered a naive idealism also necessitated this change.
So what happened to the definition of Socialism? Progressives seeking public services adopted the word, dropping the totalitarian aspect of it. It became a way to describe the ideology that let government and taxpayer money build communal properties such as public transportation, libraries, public education, and roads. Opponents of this principle, however, employ the word with an emphasis on the Marxist definition, yet these same opponents use communism with the same totalitarian emphasis, disregarding Marx. The result: two words with the same meaning. Opponents to public institutions have essentially stripped their opponents of the means to describe the cause they are championing.
Even our dictionaries are at a loss to explain them:
\Com”mu*nism\, n. [F. communisme, fr. commun common.] A scheme of equalizing the social conditions of life; specifically, a scheme which contemplates the abolition of inequalities in the possession of property, as by distributing all wealth equally to all, or by holding all wealth in common for the equal use and advantage of all.
\So”cial*ism\, n. [Cf. F. socialisme.] A theory or system of social reform which contemplates a complete reconstruction of society, with a more just and equitable distribution of property and labor.
Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.
Two words that mean nearly the exact same thing.
An entire category of political discourse has been skewed in favor of those who twisted the words. People more easily comprehend absolutes, so the extremist wins the tug-of-war. The moderate who realizes the advantages of properly balancing socialism and capitalism must employ tediously complex arguments, which account for the many nuanced advantages and situational applications of each ideology.
The opponent need only call them a “Communist”, and thus, with one word, apply an entire history of bad associations to their opponent. It is a mischaracterization. Their opponent merely advocates moderate socialization of specific institutions for public benefit, not a totalitarian seizure of all private property. It is unfair to the public not to allow any consideration of this option for public policy making.
Decades after the Cold War, the stigma of these concepts prevents Americans from realistically confronting them. Most of us are in denial that anything socialist exists in our country, or that it is an indispensable component to the stability of our civilization.
New Language: “Homicide Bombings”
This is a new one creeping into the lexicon and its peculiar nature makes me wonder if it will catch on. What is a “Homicide Bombing”? Is it when a roadside bomb goes off and kills soldiers or civilians? No. Is it when a bomb is dropped from a plane and kills people? No. Is it when a parked car, filled with explosives, detonates and takes entire city blocks’ worth of lives?
No. These situations are “Roadside Bombings”, “Aerial Bombings”, and “Car Bombings” respectively. “Homicide Bombings” are when an individual straps a bomb to them self, enters a crowded location, and detonates the explosive, killing them self and taking the surrounding innocents with them. So the question arises: What differentiates a “Homicide Bombing” from a “Suicide Bombing”?
The answer is that the speaker has chosen to substitute the word “Suicide” with “Homicide”, for the purpose of removing the association of martyrdom from the terrorist act. While I understand and empathize with the need to stress the heinous nature of this act, a better way to do this is to stress Islam’s rejection of suicide, especially for a religious cause:
[2:195] You shall spend in the cause of GOD; do not throw yourselves with your own hands into destruction. You shall be charitable; GOD loves the charitable.
[ 4:29] O you who believe, do not consume each others’ properties illicitly – only mutually acceptable transactions are permitted. You shall not kill yourselves. GOD is Merciful towards you.
[ 4:30] Anyone who commits these transgressions, maliciously and deliberately, we will condemn him to Hell. This is easy for GOD to do.
[ 7:199 ] You shall resort to pardon, advocate tolerance, and disregard the ignorant.
There is no need to outright abuse the English language to the point of creating cognitive dissonance. Aren’t all bombings homicidal? Then isn’t the term “Homicidal Bombing” a gross redundancy? Not only does this creepy bit of newspeak offend the critical mind, but it does a severe injustice to the audience, because the term fails to adequately describe the event.
In Orwell’s “1984”, this tactic was known as “Doublespeak”. The ruling class, using the excuse that language was unnecessarily complex and inefficient, began to cut words from the common lexicon. Words like “great”, “fantastic”, “wonderful”, and so on, could all be reduced to “good”. If something was really good, then the modifier “double” or “plus” could be added. Thus “good”, “double good”, and “double plus good” replaced hundreds of words. The ultimate goal was to strip the public of its propensity to articulate its problems.
I don’t believe that is the intention with “Homicide Bombing”, but it is the result. This misguided activism has crept into the political dialogue and has even been adopted by FOX News. My advice is to be aware of it, and remind the people who use it of how inarticulate they sound.
Politicians must not be allowed to change the meaning of words in the English language. We must demand that the academic definitions remain in effect. Otherwise, we allow ourselves to fall victim to thought control, without a common frame of reference with which to communicate our ideas.
Often when confronted with their misuse of language, a pundit will state they do not wish to debate the “semantics” of the issue, but this is a weak justification for their dismissive attitude. Semantics are the many different definitions and connotations a single word can carry. Simply think of Liberal and Conservative and you see how many dimensions of variable meaning a single word can bare.
When an arguer says they do not wish to debate semantics, they are saying they do not wish to debate the issue’s foundation. Words are the common frame of reference that we must all work from in order to understand one another’s point of view. If we are working from different definitions of the same words, then we cannot properly convey our ideas. People will be speaking the same language, but not understand one another.
Maybe if we took the time to debate semantics, we could find a common ground from which to refine our differences into their nuanced states, rather than expanding them into chasms of otherness. We aren’t all so different after all.