Yesterday, after the arrest of nineteen alleged terrorists in the UK, President Bush stated:
The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation. (Detroit Free Press, emphasis mine)
Why not criminals or even evil people? To combine a distinctly hot-button term with as broad a title as Islamic, once again risks categorising all Moslems as advocates of hate and destruction. To define the terminology of conflict gives one power over ideas and actions. If I have no understanding of language or how to use it, I have no control over my life and cannot enter into the conversation. We have to maintain control of language in order to maintain our own autonomy.
Not that Mr. Bush is uniquely at fault here. These terms are easy to use and communicate powerful messages. They bring people together under a banner. We know fascism as a scar on the 20th century. And Islam referrers to those people who are to blame for unleashing it again. If we listen at all to the leaders of majority Moslem countries who are at odds with The West, we hear the same methodology of language at work once again. They use a thick brush with heavy paint to write their diatribes against the infidels.
However, when we respond in the same manner, it merely spins the cycle faster. The extremists who wish to polarise the discussion with the terms they’ve set out want us to confuse religion and politics. They know that religion is the most powerful and deep-set source of vocabulary. But we are using a language thousands of years old to address the political problems of the 21st century. These languages were not designed to handle the load that several billions of people and a connected global culture place on them. They are the languages of a much smaller scale.
I wonder if all the conflict in the world comes mainly down to language. Perhaps we need a new language for the world. I do not mean something to replace English, Hindi, Hebrew, or Arabic; I mean a new language specifically for peace. The language we are using carries with it too much history for clear understanding. The world has become too small for our vocabulary. Things are happening which are too new for us to clearly comprehend; so we reach back and try to find words from the past which might describe them. But no past words can fully define today; all the languages are actually dead. If we cannot soon shape a new common vocabulary of peace, we are going to pull society back a thousand years. If all we have to describe the present is the language of the past, we will relive that same past again. Only now, the scope of humanity and the scale of conflict are vastly multiplied.