Collateral Language
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Collateral Language
A User’s Guide to America’s New War
Edited by John Collins and Ross Glover
New York University Press, 2002.

Language is the instrument by which we understand the world – and thus act in it.  If our instrument is flawed then we will inevitably act in ways that will not achieve what we intend. 

To be able to act properly we need to understand the world as it is.  We need to understand language and its proper use.  It is not surprising that the preeminent linguist of our time, Noam Chomsky, is also a major voice against the abuse of power.

This book is a collection of 14 essays by the same number of authors looking at the use, and misuse, of the following terms in public discourse in the United States today:  Anthrax, Blowback, Civilization versus Barbarism, Cowardice, Evil, Freedom, Fundamentalism, Jihad, Justice, Targets, Terrorism, Unity, Vital Interests, and The War on ___ .  As might be expected from a book with many authors, the essays vary in quality, but all have important things to say.

The editors say in the introduction:

Language is a terrorist organization; and we stand united against terrorism. 

We call language a terrorist organization to illustrate the real effects of language on citizens, especially in times of war.  Language, like terrorism, targets civilians and generates fear in order to effect political change.  When our political leaders and media outlets use terms like Anthrax, terrorist threat, madmen and biological weapons, a specific type of fearfulness emerges, both intentionally and unintentionally.  We are all targets for this type of language, and we are all affected by it as well. …

Numerous terms and phrases emerge during war to describe, justify, and explain a nation’s actions to the people of that nation.  The U.S. political-military lexicon utilizes terms in particular ways to produce desired responses from its citizens. […] (W)e have an obligation, as citizens of a democratic state, to question, critique, and understand the language given to us by those who claim to represent our interests.

The essays in this book […] begin from the premise that language matters in the most concrete, immediate way possible:  its use, by political and military leaders, leads directly to violence in the form of war, mass murder (including genocide), the physical destruction of human communities, and the devastation of the natural environment. …

Let’s look then at the last chapter, “The War on ____” by Ross Glover.

In this chapter the author looks at the predilection in U.S. politics to attempt to deal with a perceived problem by declaring a “war” on it.  In my memory we have had the War on Poverty, the War on Crime, the War on Drugs, and the War on Terror(ism).  Each succeeding “war” has become grander in its scope and goals.  What is there about declaring a war on something that is so appealing to us?  What would we think, for example, if France were to declare a War on Genetically Modified Foods? 

Yet “wars” have become a popular enterprise of this country.  War is good.  War is the way to solve things.  War gives unity of purpose.  A war doesn’t need much thinking, only following.  This nation still lives in the myth of World War II which was the good war, and was “won”.  But these recent incarnations are not like any conventional war; the enemy is not discrete and easily identified.  Rather the targets are conceptual and vague.  Not only are these wars un-winnable,  but they represent instead a permanent enhancement and exercise of centralized state power - to the detriment of social concerns and local democracy.   

As Ross Glover concludes in this chapter:

’The War on ____’ is a war against the dispossessed, a war against nonwhite races, a war on poverty of the worst kind, killing the impoverished to support our own wealth.

The degradation of language is a reflection of a larger problem in modern commercial culture, where language is used more and more to achieve a desired effect, absent the actual meaning of the words.  Consider advertising, for example, which is mostly content free, but emotionally loaded. 

Language is what forms our thoughts and actions.  We need to understand how it does so.  For our very sanity, we must recognize and actively oppose its misuse. 

David White, 5/26/03


The love of liberty is the love of others. The love of power is the love of ourselves. -- William Hazlitt
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( This page was last updated on:  01/02/2004 )