January 27, 2007

Power of Words.

What are words? In a sense, they are mere shortcuts to express elaborate feelings, phenomenon, concepts etc. Instead of saying "linguistic units with phonetic content and used in speech to convey certain meaning" we simply say "word". There must be a highly sophisticated layered structure to the development of words: with first words describing simple concepts and more complex words created out of old words as time went on. Studying this development is an enormously complex task and constitutes the object of various fields of study like linguistics and anthropology.

A particularly interesting aspect of this study is understanding how words enter into mass consciousness. Here I am not talking about common words like "good", "table", "run" etc. For these kind of words, the question is easy and/or uninteresting. It is lot more interesting and hard to understand how a word like "communism", for instance, caught on. The most intriguing question for me is how much does the very emergence of the word "communism" contribute to the effects of the ideology it represents. Though ill-equipped to even begin to answer that question, I am inclined to believe the answer is not a little.

Articulation is an extremely important part of any scientific endeavor. As we pursue long chains of thought and contemplation, effective articulation is necessary to organize those thoughts. In the realm of politics this role of articulation takes on added importance. Often the ability to find and popularize words to describe a political stand is key to its success. We all know how much politicians long for a "winning slogan".

This might sound a little cynical with the suggestion that the mere creation of clever phrases is enough to succeed. Of course that is not the case. To a large extent the inherent worth of an idea is what determines its success. But it must be noted that the availability of common words is very often a huge advantage.

One classic example is the word "anti-semitism". Historically various forms of racial and religious prejudices existed, but no other specific prejudice is as easily identifiable as anti-semitism. To be sure, to a large extent this is because this particular prejudice took on extreme forms for lengthy periods. But to a small extent, the recognizability of this prejudice has to do with the existence of a convenient word like "anti-semitism". In any case it accords a huge advantage to some people.

Let us look at an example. Alan Dershowitz immediately labels anyone criticizing Israeli policies anti-semite. Given the negative intonations of that word, this labeling gives Dershowitz a huge advantage before any discussion can take place. On the other hand, the target of Dershowitz's attack does not initially have the terminological facility to counter the accusations against him. What can you call someone who is apt to use the word anti-semite at the drop of a hat. Any criticism is bound to take a couple of sentences at least and thereby lose the terminological battle.

As an another example, it will be interesting to see the development of the word "Islamophobia" in the years to come. This word has caught on in the aftermath of 9/11 with many people prone to look suspiciously at Muslims. Obviously the inherent generalization was problematic and this word began to be used to denote this problem. However it has not yet attained the same level of guilt associated to anti-semitism. Still the existence of the word itself indicates some level of recognition of the problem.

One can't stress enough the importance of words in any aspect of human life, and particularly in political discourse.


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