- Free Speech and Political Correctness: A Fragile Balancce
- War Logic and War Rhetoric: Towards a Peaceful Language
- Abuse of Power and the Debate on Sexism: The case of Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo movement and the media as public prosecutors
- Climate change: A sensitive Issue. Words play a crucial role
- Language and Migration: Why It Matters How We Talk About Migrants
Talking about war bluntly is a tricky thing. Nobody wants to go to war, at least not the general public. In Europe the experiences of two world wars are deep-rooted and the resistance is great. Nevertheless, the governments of many European countries engage in war matters with the approval of their parliamentary majorities. Language often acts as a welcome accomplice.
Different Standards: A preliminary remark
There are differences when it comes to killing people. Individuals who serve as soldiers and warriors have social roles that are structured by military institutions. Institutionally ordered actions with lethal consequences are embedded in so-called “military missions” which promise to serve a higher purpose. Even if these missions may violate internationally agreed agreements (the Convention on Human Rights, the proscription of chemical weapons, international law)
Soldiers accept this role. Violent actions with lethal consequences when committed in a personal context are persecuted by the state and subject to severe punishment. The details are regulated by the Criminal Code. The different standards are reflected in language use. Whereas killings in a personal context are termed murder, however, when they happen in a military context they are often described as “collateral damage” of a “justified use of force”.
When a War is Not a War: The Orwellian Attitude
“Orwellian” stands for a language manipulation that goes back to George Orwell’s novel 1984. It is about a fictitious autocratic state that tried to develop a new language – the so-called “Newspeak”. A main feature was the “doublethink”, a propagated procedure in which two contradictory or mutually exclusive beliefs could be brought together in such a way that they would be reconciled.
An uptodate example.
Since 2011, the Syrian conflict has claimed millions of lives and has made tens of millions of people refugees. The current situation (2017) is confusing. On the one hand there is an internal armed conflict (“civil war”), on the other hand an internationalized conflict in which many nations with conflicting interests are involved.
When it came to persuade the American public that it was advisible to be involved in the Syrian war, the Obama administration’s secretary of state, used an Orwellian language tactic.
According to John Kerry, state secretary of the Obama administration, launching cruise missiles at Syria was not war. Testifying before the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry said, “President Obama is not asking America to go to war.”
So, why the Orwellian “War is Peace” attitude here, asked Nathan Goodman. Partially because Kerry recognized that the war in Syria was not popular with the American public:
… when people are asked, do you want to go to war with Syria, of course not! Everybody, a hundred percent of Americans will say no.
When most Americans oppose a war, the best solution was to to avoid the term war. The U.S. government didn’t want the wider public to know the truth about their wars. This is why Chelsea Manning was in prison for blowing the whistle on war crimes. Goodman’s conclusion:
This rampant dishonesty is precisely why we should never trust them when they want to go to war. Especially when they refuse to call war by its name.
“The First Casualty When War Comes is Truth”: One-sided Reporting and Disinformation
This dictum, attributed to US-Senator Hiram Johnson (1918), describes the difficulties to inform neutrally about conflicting parties in violent international conflicts. Johnson’s conclusion: one-sided reporting and targeted disinformation belong to military campaigning. You’ll have to be prepared for it.
An example from the Syrian Conflict, but any other example will do. In Sept. 20014 the United States, at a NATO summit, launched the “International Alliance Against the Islamic State”, a military alliance. While in Western mainstream coverage of the Syrian war there was ample “evidence” of the evil bombs of Assad and Russia there was practically nothing about similarly dirty activities by the “International Alliance against the Islamic State”. Hiram Johnson’s conclusion more than a century ago would have been was that biased reporting and disinformation was part of “the art of warfare”.
There have always been false news:
The 9/11 lie
After the terrorist attack, pictures of cheering Palestinians went around the world.
The scene, however, appeared to have been bought. TV journalists had apparently promised cake to the Palestinians.
The weapons lie
George W. Bush Jr. wanted to bring his father’s mission to an end and declared before the Iraq war: “We found the weapons of mass destruction.” His Secretary of State Colin Powell , in 2003, presented the “evidence” to the UN. Later, Powell spoke of the “eyesore” in his career.
The many other lies
There are doctoral candidates who copied large parts of their their doctoral thesis from other sources without acknowledging it; there are journalists who conduct interviews with people whom they have never met; there are footballers who drop like swallows without having had any contact with their opponents.
But fake news is something else and much more dangerous. Hot topics can be effortlessly instrumentalized: the fear of a rise in the foreign alienation, the abuse of power by elites, national security.
Fake News does not always has to be a straightfoward lie. Most often it contains a grain of truth referring to a real event. But the message is then so distorted that – as a whole – it becomes an untruth. This is all the more worrying as fake news today is multiplied immediately by the mechanisms of the Social Media as a communication platform.
Western societies are not powerless against fake news. There is the fact check that tests – with journalistic methods – whether suspicious messages are forged. But once spread by the Social Media the original message remains in the mind of the readers despite subsequent correction. There is and will not be an ultimate antidote to disinformation.
“With Fire, Fury … and Power”: Nuclear Arrogance
Nuclear weapons are the most destructive and inhumane weapons ever created. Both in the scale of the devastation they cause – a single nuclear bomb detonated over a large city could kill millions of people – and their genetically damaging radioactive fallout. Verbal attacks driven by national self-interest are the worst possible means of stopping their use or, one step further atomic disarmament.
In August 2017, the media reported on a dangerous word duel between the US president in office and the head of government of North Korea. The background: The northern part of Korea had conducted nuclear tests, and were developing nuclear weapons which could hit US targets. One was, at it were, just outside the door: Guam, an unincorporated island in the western Pacific Ocean. It was a US military outpost: bombers, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines were stationed there to protect the strategic interests of the US and its allies in the region.
The 45th US President is known not to be embarrassed by the diplomatic protocol of his predecessors in office:
Presidents usually try to use language that is even more moderate than what they may be feeling in private, because they’ve always been worried that their language might escalate a crisis. (Julie Hirschfeld Davis).
The choice of words had been sharper than before: threats were followed by counter-threats with many ill-considered, unreflected utterances on both sides. President Trump spoke about “Fire, Fury … and Power” to counter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un called the US-President a ‘Mentally Deranged US Dotard’.
For half a century, there have been internationally recognized agreements on the proscription of nuclear weapons.The debate has been revitalized by Ican – an international campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons, which consists of many civil society groups.
In October 2017, the Norwegian Nobel Committee decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017 to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican). The organization received the award for its work to highlight the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and their groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based ban on such weapons. The Norwegian Nobel Committee honored a civil society organization made up of many individual organizations that had been successful in drafting a treaty that would oblige affirmative nations to de-legitimize nuclear weapons and, if they themselves were owners of such, to disarm themselves. On September 20, 2017, the treaty was released for signature at the United Nations in New York.
Ten years ago, Ican’s many founding groups came together to work together on a nuclear weapons deal. The driving force was not governments, but activists in more than 100 countries. In July 2017, an agreement was passed prohibiting the manufacture, possession, use and storage of nuclear weapons. On September 20, 2017, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was released for signature at the United Nations in New York.
Ican, honored by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for his peace mission, stands for a new generation of anti-nuclear weapons opponents. Its members are usually under thirty. They are not biased by outmoded ideologies: “The Cold War”, the conviction that only the balance of destructive weapons would provide security, etc.).
What can language do to promote peace? Peace is more than the absence of war. It contains a positive concept that has to do with mutual respect, understanding, human rights, social justice, solidarity.
A non-violent rhetoric will not solve conflicts but it will support conflict resolution by mitigating the potential for aggression, thus creating a space for dialogue. “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding”. (Albert Einstein)
Ahmad, Idrees. “Medien und Krieg in Nahost: Die große Syrien-Schlamperei” taz.de (25.11.2014)
Gardt, Martin. “Scheint zu klappen: wie zwei Teenager Nachrichten erfinden und zehntausende Dollar verdienen.“ 29.08.2016
Goodman, Nathan. “John Kerry and the Orwellian Language of War.” September 6, 2013.