Sunday, 1 April 2012

How Words Can Change The World (For The Worse)

During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries the fear of witches stalked Europe and North America. Thousands of innocent men and  women were denounced and executed by the Christian Church and it's quasi-secular political allies. No real proof was required and outsiders, rivals, dissidents and unfortunates were turned on, branded with a single word and because of that word were killed.
During the 20th century another word sprang into being - Communist. The same hysteria grew, the same fear that there were Commies hiding away waiting to take over and do evil things in the monarchies and republics of the Western world. The Red Scares demonstrate the fear the word created in people's minds. The first one attacked foreign immigrants, trade unionists and left-wing idealists. Fuelled by a xenophobic, sensationalist press any true threat to the US was blown out of all proportion. This led to the 1918 Sedition Act which allowed the deportation of political opponents and recent immigrants. Other legislation curtailed the freedom of speech and political action. The second, later, Red Scare fuelled fears of fifth columnists and Soviet spies in American society. Yet again, people were turned in, arrested and even deported for possible Communist ties.Huge investigations were launched inside government to grade the 'Americanism' of its employees and the new Smith Act required the registration of all foreign nations as well as criminalising any involvement with groups or individuals supporting the altering of any State by force or violence. This Act was not only deployed against possible Communists threats but also against German and Japanese Americans who were perceived to have been disloyal.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, what threat, what word, has arisen to fill this whole in public consciousness? Terrorism. The threat actually posed by Terrorism, as with magic and Communism, has been overstated and public fears have been fuelled to such a degree that the word has become a catch-all reason for huge military spending, the curtailment of civil liberties and even foreign invasion. Through the use of the symbol that Terrorism has now become the US government has allowed spying to be conducted on it's own citizens, created a huge and costly security apparatus a even legalised the detention with out trial, extradition and targeting killing of almost anyone, in almost every country just for the suspicion of Terrorism. Other states have fared no better with the UK today announcing that a new law may allow GCHQ to spy on suspects' Internet histories and emails. The word Terrorism has pushed governments to even further measures than any previous word has ever done before; it has even led to the US declaring war on it which, after the War on Drugs, is the second modern war against something a ephemeral and unquantifiable as a word.
Words have great power and great meaning loaded into them. To utter them can release huge swathes of emotion, feeling and response. Often such powerful words are uttered and great things have happened - Freedom, Equality, Justice. But, just as often such words, loaded with hate, ignorance and violence have led to terrible, horrible things happening. These are just a few examples from history but the list is huge - Jews, Blacks, Homosexuals, Slaves, Rebels, Christians, Muslims, Republicans, immigrants, Gypsies, Irish etc etc etc. People who have the ability for large numbers to hear their words must be especially careful; the casual or uninformed use of such powerful symbols can evoke huge and unimagined consequences. The curtailment of rights and freedom, arrest, persecution, violence, murder, execution, war, genocide; all of these have been practised on those labelled with a word, from Christians crucified by Roman invaders to the deaths of civilians in an attack by a US drone.We must understand the meanings that are ascribed to the words we so casually throw around without a second thought  because we might do good with our words but that is very hard when they are loaded with ignorance, intolerance and hate.

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