Saturday, February 20, 2010

Words, and what we do with them.

Apparently I'm currently residing in a lightheatedness-free zone. But it's 2am and I haven't been able to sleep, eat or think properly for days (long story), so let's just run with it and see where it goes.

For several months, I have been making an effort to eradicate the word 'retarded' from my vocabulary. To my shame, it's been there for a long time, a casually dismissive (offensive) marker of everything that's wrong with the subversion of meaning. I'm ashamed of myself for not having gotten rid of it sooner, not just because it's awful but for two other reasons; one of my family members has suffered throughout her life from the pernicious damage this language and attitude inflicts upon those we apply it to, and also because my younger sister would have been teaching me about the violence of language since we were kids, if I'd only had the wit to learn.

I'm not exactly a paragon of virtue when it comes to language. I swear. Lots, actually. I've never got the hang of being detached when arguing over something that means a lot to me; I rail and shout and rant. I'm not great at finding ways to produce emphasis without doing violence to, or through, the language I choose. At the core of much of this, I suppose, is a combination of passion and laziness. Passion for the things I believe in makes it difficult for me to divorce myself from the emotion of explaining, or arguing them; laziness has led to a failure to completely interrogate the language I use to describe the world and my relationship to it. In spite of my own failings on this point, I do believe in treating language with respect.

Because I'm bizarrely idealistic (strange attribute for a cynic, but what the hell...) I find the the manipulation of language for reasons of political expediency incredibly disturbing. I'm still flabbergasted by the 2001 Australian Federal election, when the Howard Government, desperate for an election victory, spent ten weeks engaged in a "pervasively mendacious" campaign of racial vilification. I found the language of the 'war on terror' similarly depressing, and so I shouldn't be surprised that, in the aftermath of yet another episode of violence, language is the first casualty of reporting.

When an individual chooses to commit an act of extraordinary violence as a means to protest the nature of government regulation, and clearly articulates that violence is the only way in which to make that stand, clearly in the hope that it will encourage others to 'wake up' and make that stand, that individual has committed an act of terrorism. Words have meaning for a reason. Official definitions of terrorism exist so that we are able to define those acts which, in endangering human life, aim to "intimidate or coerce the government, the civilian population... in furtherance of political or social objectives."

When a man flies a plane into a federal building and leaves behind documentation expressing his conviction that such acts are a necessary step, that man has engaged himself in a terrorist action. It is utterly indefensible to suggest that because that man happened to be an American citizen, acting without connection to international terrorist movements, he did not engage in a terrorist act.

Language is a powerful tool, and it is for that very reason that we have an obligation to use it well. Joseph Stack was a white, anglo, non-muslim American citizen. These facts in and of themselves are not enough to excuse him from being labelled a terrrorist in that 'capital T way'.

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