It’s such an important thing, language. The way we use words to express ourselves, describe our surroundings, make sense of what’s happening. We look to people’s use of language to help us understand how we are supposed to react to a situation; are they using words to express joy, sadness, fear?
Language is a powerful tool. The nursery rhymes sung in childhood to deflect harsh words undersold this power – sticks and stones may break my bones, but words? Words will seep into your consciousness through repetition, they will shape actions with the intent behind them. They legitimise, they ratify the 3am thoughts of self-doubt, the thoughts you feel you can’t say in public.
Language changes over time. Certain words become more, or less, nuanced; the definitions warp, sometimes reclaimed by the groups they were once slurs to describe. Language is immensely powerful in dividing people, both through barriers of understanding and through disagreements in ideology.
Language is also incredibly powerful at uniting,
But it is all about intent.
A lot of the language in the past week has alarmed me. The new American administration has gone from calling foreigners foreigners, to immigrants, to illegals, to aliens.
There are many words for ‘different’ in the English language; each has its own level of implied ‘difference’ between the speaker and those being addressed. Which is why the use of ‘alien’ to describe the people Trump doesn’t want in ‘His America’ floored me, more so than the use of illegals.
Illegals still implies that person is human.
Aliens imply that they don’t belong on this planet, let alone in the Land of the Free**.
**terms and conditions apply
The way speechwriters and speakers choose words to address crowds is never really ‘tip-of-the-tongue’. Even in bumbling, roundabout, addresses that seem ridiculously under-rehearsed, it’s never really thought of on the spot. There may be improvisation around pre-drafted sentences when memory fails, but the main points, the aim of each speech is solid. There is a goal that needs to be achieved by the words that are chosen, they have to make people believe that what is said is going to happen, or to move the crowd enough to support a cause.
Aliens may appear to be a slip, a misstep in the way alternative facts are now, apparently, a thing, but it’s an important choice of wording. Even if the decision wasn’t premeditated, it is expressing a viewpoint that these people do not belong. They are not human, and therefore do not deserve the same opportunities, the same rights.
Using phrases that are typically dehumanising removes the ability to relate, sympathise, or empathise with the group of people targeted. It is actively othering, entirely divisive, incites fear, and for world leaders to continue to use language with such intent, especially in a society that needs to embrace globalisation rather than protectionism, is immensely worrying.
Historically, the use of language in this manner – to incite divisions between groups – has never ended well. For anyone. Ever. There are people alive today who have seen unspeakable horrors at the hands of those who thought, those who were told they were superior; antics that have been immortalised in film and in pages of books that aren’t easy to watch or easy to read. The end of racial segregation was not that long ago, the Holocaust is remembered to hope nothing like it happens again, in East Asia there is still an immense amount of unsettled feeling towards the Japanese and their Imperial history, we can take it all the way back to the crusades, and further still.
Language can often leave wounds far deeper, far more sore, than those sticks and stones.
But the intent isn’t just to divide, it’s an incredibly large factor, and probably the one most people using the language in the first place think of – though in varying guises such as ‘controversial’, ‘unpopular opinions’, truth / tea / iteration after iteration of ‘this is probably going to annoy someone, somewhere’.
Intent is also about normalisation of the words used. In most cases, this is simply a matter of reclaiming language that has been used to harm in the past – such as in the lgbtqa+ community where queer or gay were (still are) commonly used as insults; or how a lot of the younger wave of feminists aren’t so scared of using that label anymore – if you use the language enough with the intent you’re applying to it, it’ll catch on.
You can probably see where, in cases when the intent is not to reclaim, things can go sour.
With the intent to normalise language that is used to divide, by making it OK to say things that are supposed to harm communities, you get insidious fragments of language that worm their way into everyday speech. The worst part is, you don’t necessarily realise you’re using them.
Take ‘like’ for example. It isn’t exactly an insidious fragment of speech, but there is a gap in between the generations that use ‘like’ as a filler word in sentences, and those that don’t. It’s normal for the generations that do, because that is what they hear regularly. It’s part of their day to day vocabulary. Another example would be the lightning speed that current slang evolves at.
But when we’re talking about the fragments of speech that are inherently infused with undercurrents divisive intent, like calling immigrants aliens, the more people that use them, and thus legitimise the use of them means that the language eventually filters down and through. Hearing people use them in news reports, seeing the phrases used in programs, advertising, comedy, situations that seem so normal and natural helps to spread that language. That idea. That intent.
And now we’re seeing the results, played out in headlines that are too dark, even, for Black Mirror.
The way in which we use language is so so important.
I’m trying to find words to form coherent sentences on everything else that’s happened since mid-January. I’m keeping track of everything that’s been passed via EO, or is in proposals for bills, but there is an awful lot of it, and I need to research way more in certain areas.
For anyone who tells me that I’m British, and then asks why I care, well. In recent history, America has had a tendency to become involved in global issues in the name of spreading democracy and fighting Communism. And, although it depends which books you’re reading, what stance you take in International Relations theory, and whether you’re Russia or China, the World Order has looked pretty singular in polarity since the end of the Cold War. As in, America is one of the richest countries in the world, it has one of the largest militaries in the world, it has the second largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world, the US is the largest economy in the world on a nominal basis. it is home to the IMF and many other international organisations. I cannot understand how anyone could feel the need to ‘make America great again’, or ‘put America first’ if they have an ounce of outward perspective.