Words matter

Words matter

Why is it so hard to call things what they are?

I know. I know. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Sure.

That’s probably even true occasionally.

But words have meaning. We can’t understand the world properly if we can’t describe it to ourselves, and then to others, with clarity and precision.

Oh, there are many words to apply to people who kill babies. You can call them terrorists. You can call them murderers. You can call them monsters. But you can’t call them militants, and you certainly can’t call them freedom fighters. That is a basic truth that many newspapers did not grasp at the beginning, and now we see that the term of art often deployed is gunman, which gives an odd, Dashiell Hammett, black-and-white cast to blood-red evil.

Because we each have our obsessions and mine is language, I have been obsessing over the letter that the head of William Paterson University sent his constituents this week. As we report, the letter is an extraordinary jargon salad, saying nothing as indirectly
as possible.

“The death of any human being is tragic,” it begins. How true! How insightful! How bold! But note that when you talk about “any” death, you needn’t be specific. In fact, you shouldn’t be.

“I am conflicted on an appropriate response that embraces all the complexities and oppositional views of various populations, who are equally important parts of our diverse community,” it continues. “This is where our work to be diverse and inclusive is challenging and yet vital to who we are as a community.”

A reader might wonder exactly what Dr. Richard J. Helldobler might be talking about. What situation might draw these oppositional views? Who might those various communities be? Who died? Is he maybe talking about King Lear, or Oedipus, or maybe even poor, misunderstood Richard III? Is he using no names because he’s describing a hypothetical situation?

But no. No, he’s not. He’s talking about the 1,300 people — mostly but not entirely Israeli, mostly but not entirely Jews, each one of them an entire world — who were grotesquely murdered by assassins, straight from the Dark Ages, who could look at babies, torture them, and kill them. But oh my! Don’t name them! All they did was try to kill Jews! (The non-Jews who also were slaughtered should have known better.)

The best way to make a point is clearly. Use fancy language if you want to — it can be fun! — but only if you know exactly what the words mean and what you mean. Don’t try to hide fear or ignorance behind big empty words.

When you see evil, name it. Say that Hamas terrorists slaughtered people. (We could say innocent people, but the problem with that is that it implies that maybe someone is guilty of some nebulous something and therefore can be dispatched bloodily. No.)

And if you can’t name the evil, that’s okay. Not everyone can. But then please just shut up.


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