Words as weapons

Actress Shirley MacLaine has caused outrage with comments in her memoir suggesting holocaust victims were “balancing their karma from ages before” (see here). The book includes in the sub-title ‘A lifetime of questions, speculations…’ and so on, leaving a lot of caveated wriggle-room.  So this might be nothing more than a ham-fisted example of the old adage about ‘no such thing as bad publicity’. But in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the current debate about freedom of speech, her book highlights the power of words to wound.

This is nothing new, of course. British Prime Minister David Cameron chooses words deliberately when he talks of a “war on mediocrity” in schools. Likewise his opposite number, Ed Miliband, countering with a desire to “weaponise” the issue of the National Health Service. Intriguingly, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland has just released a classified document from 1985. It contains advice to the then new Minister, Tom King, on toxic words to steer clear of (see here). Words like ‘British Army’, ‘orange’, ‘green’ and ‘Ireland’ may seem innocuous enough to many observers, but were felt, at the time, to be sufficiently loaded as to be worth avoiding. (When I served in Northern Ireland I remember a local councillor’s outrage at a new cycle path along a busy road. His concern was not for the safety of the cyclists. Rather at the numerous junctions on the route there were patches of tarmac where the green cycle path, white give way symbols and yellow (gold) lines intersected.  These, he fumed, were Republican symbols being foisted on the public without consultation.)

But where to draw the line between censorship and free speech if words can be so powerful? “How do you take on ideas if you hide them from view?” asked Tom Slater assistant editor of the online magazine Spiked and vocal opponent of all forms of censorship on a recent BBC Radio 4 programme, The World Tonight (link here – start at 16:37). “Censorship is a judgment on the audience,” he says, by allowing aberrant views to go unchallenged. Some authorities have resorted to legislation. An OSCE report into free media (see here) was sharply critical of Republika Srpska, the ethnic Serb portion of Bosnia, for too heavy-handedly encouraging self-censorship.

Gene Sharp, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, understands the power of words better than most. The ‘Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare,’ as he has been called, founded the Albert Einstein Institution and promotes nonviolent struggle to challenge dictatorship and oppression. His amazing film, How to start a revolution, (see trailer here) suggests one of the most powerful methods is the use of signs in English.  The point being that the audience the protesters should be appealing to is global, not local, and English is better understood world-wide than any other language.

Some in the media have started referring to Islamic State, or IS, as Daesh, knowing well the power words and language hold. France, also, now uses this term in official language (see here). Justin Marozzi, historian and author of ‘Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood’ has clear advice. “Follow the Arabs,” he says, “they don’t use the term IS for a very good reason.” The term Islamic State came from the group itself and he suggests we unwittingly confer legitimacy on them by supporting their narrative. Alternatively, Daesh, with connotations of being ‘outsiders’ or ‘renegades’ has a “strongly pejorative meaning of crushing something underfoot, of trampling on people, of being bigoted,” he says.

Words can hurt; governments know that, terrorists and individuals too.  When does free speech become incitement; when should self-censorship give way to legislation? And in a global conversation, won’t somebody always be offended?