Language Matters: How to Actually Read Everything You Are Reading
As recently as last week, I had quite the lengthy screed planned on the use of language in the media we consume and how it can directly contribute to public perceptions of a situation.
The fawning descriptions of “locals showing solidarity” to “protect their local Target” during last summer’s police brutality-driven unrest accompanied with jarringly juxtaposed images of angry bigots waving weapons while chanting for “four more years” of acutely American animosity.
Of course, that was before the American White Supremacist Insurrection of January 6, 2021.
There may be no clearer illustration of the danger contained within imprecise use of language than the coverage of and reaction to this horrifyingly inevitable development by legacy media.
The descriptions employed for the insurgents and mutineers who stormed the United States Capitol (and state legislatures nationwide simultaneously) armed with weapons and wrath less than a week ago are in many cases infuriatingly wan, and in still more almost...romantic.
Adam Christian Johnson, the subject of the featured image in this post, simply “walked out with” the property of the US Government instead of “committing grand larceny on federal grounds.”
For context, I get nervous drinking a beer in the street.
An “armed rebellion” was minced into a “rally,” “domestic terrorists” into “supporters.” Indeed, the general response to the first invasion of the Congressional chambers since the War of 1812 seems to carry the tone of “pro sports championship celebration run amok” rather than “attempted violent civilian overthrow of national legislature endorsed by the chief executive.”
Imagine reading any of the following sentences about any other country.
Thousands of insurrectionists invaded the nation’s capital and the seat of power contained within, intent on and capable of literally and figuratively decapitating a branch of government.
A functioning gallows was erected on the National Mall.
Gun-toting radicals ran amok on the Senate floor.
A police officer was bludgeoned to death with a blunt object by a murderous mob.
Other police officers gleefully took part in furthering the civil unrest.
This was not a “protest,” a “gathering,” or, as one obstinate outlet termed it, a “chaotic event.” This was a “revolt,” an “uprising,” a “coup (d’etat if you’re feeling Frenchy today).”
Even “riot” feels a bit flaccid in this context.
When we apply the proper descriptions to concepts, give them the identifying attributes associated with a name, we tie them to appropriately evocative imagery in our minds. Language transmits concrete ideas.
Restrictive measures aimed at mitigating the spread of a pandemic do not constitute “martial law,” but selective deployment of military resources to quell dissent based on its source may be.
The potential peril contained within mitigating and exacerbating language goes beyond rousing the ire of word nerds like myself...the consequences of choosing the wrong words could be dire.
In a modern marketplace of ideas where political opponents are commonly “slammed” as in the squared circle and “blasted” like in an old Western, the spirit of confrontation could only flourish.
In a society where wearing a mask during a pandemic is deemed “slavery,” there can be no coherent discourse.
The results include the scenes to which we all bore witness that cataclysmic January afternoon.
“Cui Bono?” I asked myself and my readers in one of the earliest entries in this space. Who stands to benefit, who will gain or maintain from this information presented in this specific way?
It is imperative to ask ourselves this question as the enormity of this moment in the Human Saga continues to reveal itself. It falls to each of us to examine the language we use to describe the world around us, as well as the words we accept as valid descriptions of events.
Perception being reality, we must keep in mind that a story unfolds even as it is retold.