Let’s face it. “Good grammar” is about as cool as pocket protectors. Nowadays, it seems as though the majority of written communication is done through text messaging, Facebook posts or emails that sound like text messages. Strangely enough, while proper punctuation has all but bitten the dust, many people have developed strong feelings around another key component of grammar: word choice. This includes, among other things, the political correctness debate.
Did you see the redundancy in that last sentence? That’s a product of lazy writing. It gets me pretty steamed, but there are some word choices that are products of closed-mindedness, intent to obfuscate or intent to harm. Reducing big ideas to politically-charged catchphrases stifles the insightful exchange of ideas. This is not new, and it is not coming exclusively from any one side of the political spectrum.
This essay examines three topics and argues why polarizing language is preventing progress on solving the underlying issues. It begins with a recent example, then moves to a familiar example, then one that is close to home for Jewish students, in particular. There is a constant theme of dumbing down nuanced subjects into slogans and buzzwords. Political movers and shakers understand this, and make use of hashtag culture to rally supporters.
One of Republicans’ favorite things to do during last year’s campaign was to criticize their opponents for avoiding the term “radical Islam.” One candidate, Ted Cruz (R-Texas), even organized a Senate hearing on the Obama administration’s reluctance to use the term.
“As long as we have a commander in chief unwilling even to utter the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ we will not have a concerted effort to defeat these radicals before they continue to murder more and more innocents,” Cruz said in November 2015. While Cruz may seem to be channeling Dumbledore (“Call him Voldemort, Harry. … Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”), in reality, he is generalizing terrorism by connecting it with a particular religion.
It is decidedly unhelpful to cast terrorist groups as representatives of Islam. Despite the qualifier, “radical,” people are going to associate Islam and terror if politicians keep using the two words in the same sentence. This builds the anti-Islamic sentiment that has led to an increase in the number of hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. The term also makes it easier for terrorists to paint the Western world as “enemies of Islam.”
The next example is abortion. Pro-life or pro-choice? These are loaded words and are useful for those wishing to bin people into one of two rather extreme categories. One hopes that most people find abortion a rather unpleasant concept but that they would not object to abortion under certain extenuating circumstances. The core of the issue is that it is impossible to objectively define when an embryo becomes a person. Rather than engage in debate, people tend to display their affiliation on their t-shirt, bumper sticker or hat, turning a multi-dimensional topic into a binary and closing themselves off to others’ viewpoints.
Finally, there is the case of a certain, rather small area of land in the Middle East. You’ve probably got family members whose teeth clench when they hear the phrase “occupied territories” being used to describe the region between the Green Line and the Jordan River. In the political debate, people are either “pro-settlements” or “anti-settlements.” There does not seem to be a middle ground. Perhaps this is because finding middle ground is so ridiculously fraught.
Like “radical Islam” and “pro-life/pro-choice,” the dominant effect of the word “occupation” is to prevent people who disagree about the issue from sitting down in the same room and having a thoughtful conversation. This is a somewhat simplified view of the situation, but it is clear that if there is to be a Palestinian state, it would most likely be established in the West Bank and/or Gaza. Yet, the lands were conquered during the Six-Day War, and there are 600,000 Jewish settlers living there. Dismantling large West Bank settlements is not an option, and the status quo of international criticism of Israeli policies and an escalating culture of hate among Palestinians is sure to have unhappy consequences.
Polarizing words, repeated often, turn complex issues into impossible-to-resolve pseudo-debates where each party works itself into a frenzy over the other’s refusal to see the issue from their point of view, with neither group willing to recognize the other’s concerns as valid. Thoughtful rhetoric should avoid such careless words and instead use words that display willingness to exchange ideas.