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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Words have meanings we can’t ignore

In the wake of the Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson, political rhetoric has become, at least from some camps, decidedly nastier despite almost across-the-board pleas for civility. Perhaps most notoriously, Sarah Palin used the loaded term “”blood libel”” — referring, historically, to false claims that Jewish people murdered Christian children and used their blood to make matzo — to describe the onslaught of criticism she came under following the shooting. While people shouldn’t have blamed Palin or her now-infamous crosshairs map for the tragedy, “”some people said mean things about me on the Internet”” and “”a religious majority used false and heinous accusations to excuse driving my family from its ancestral home and/or executing us”” are not quite the same thing.

But the use of blood libel, a little-known, somewhat archaic term with an admittedly nice ring to it, pales in comparison to the linguistic stunt The Washington Times pulled in a Jan. 12 editorial.

The editors of that paper claimed that Palin and other conservatives have a right to feel “”persecuted”” by those who claim they were somehow responsible for alleged gunman Jared Loughner’s actions. Considering groups that have been actually persecuted throughout history, and the outcomes of that persecution, it seems like a disingenuous use of the word, but this is opinion journalism. I’ll take it.

Later in the piece, however, the editors refer to “”(the) ongoing pogrom against conservative thinkers.””

You read that right. Pogrom.

That term — which “”loaded”” doesn’t even begin to describe — refers to systematic violence backed by political or military authorities and carried out against a target population, usually an ethnic or religious minority. The violence committed as part of pogroms runs the gamut, from mass murder to the displacement of whole populations from their homes. Some of the most famous pogroms in history were carried out against Jews (for a ridiculously idealized mainstream account of Jewish pogroms, see the musical “”Fiddler on the Roof.””) It’s a nasty, scary word that describes a kind of horror few modern Americans can imagine.

Does The Washington Times really think this is what is happening to conservatives in this country? If so, its editors are laboring under some very serious and very bizarre delusions.

The more likely explanation is that, today’s media culture being what it is, language has been stretched out of shape and devalued to the point that words that should make us shudder instead barely register. Think someone’s overstepping his or her boundaries? Compare them to Hitler. Never mind the cruel and terrible implications of that comparison. People are desensitized to it by now, and that kind of language drives page views.

This is not a partisan issue — the left is just as guilty as the right of this kind of gross misuse of language. But The Washington Times should have known better than to use an ugly, historically significant word like pogrom to describe something that isn’t anywhere close to that ugly or significant.

Language, in order to be expressive and useful, needs to retain some meaning. Picking words like blood libel or pogrom because they sound splashy is irresponsible and has haunting implications. Comparing the criticism some conservatives are receiving to large-scale, state-sponsored violence and displacement both devalues the meaning, and thereby the experience, of actual violence and leaves the word itself devoid of significance. It’s not just that the rhetoric is vitriolic and toxic; it is robbing our language — one of our most powerful tools of democracy and change — of its efficacy. If we let ourselves forget, or worse, willfully ignore the meanings ascribed to words — if we allow ourselves to become so utterly alienated from our mode of communication — we’ll never be able to get that meaning back. We’ll stay mired in toxicity and vitriol forever, unmoored from our history and from one another, because our words will mean almost nothing.

— Heather Price-Wright is a creative writing senior. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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