The power of words


Reading and watching the news recently, with all the dark and deranged things going on (Gaza, Ukraine, Boko Haram, etc. etc.), it got me thinking not only about those things but about the various reactions to them. In the UK, as I guess everywhere, there’s been a fierce debate about the situation in Gaza and Israel’s role in it. And there’s been a lot of anger expressed, and many remarkably fixed and certain views about who’s doing what wrong and what they should really be doing instead.

I say ‘remarkably’ because, personally, I think the Palestine-Israel problem is a hugely complex, difficult and entrenched one that many more informed and well-placed people than me have proved sadly unable to untangle and resolve. Which makes it like an awful lot of other problems in the world. And yet people seem indecently, enthusiastically quick to take sides and to paint a black-and-white picture of victims and villains. Sometimes that bias is open and acknowledged, and sometimes less so, but more often than not it’s there in so much of what’s being written and said about Gaza and elsewhere.

And often that bias is shown in something as subtle as the writer’s choice of words. Take these examples.

A particular point of view is reported by the media. If you agree with that point of view, it’s a viewpoint, a perspective or an explanation. A response. Perhaps it’s even just telling it how it is. But if you disagree, then it’s propaganda. And that propaganda is peddled by a lobby.

If an individual, group or country continues with a controversial course of action in the face of strong opposition, and you approve of it, you might say they are being principled, resolute or robust. Perhaps courageous. If you don’t agree, you’re more likely to say they are being dogmatic, doctrinaire or divisive. Possibly even callous.

Whereas if that party changes its approach following criticism, and you agree with that, then you would probably describe them as responsive, humane or flexible. They’re listening. But then, hang on, they might be weak, indecisive, inconsistent or bending with the wind. Quite possibly unreliable or unprincipled. Oh dear.

And anyone putting over a different point of view might kindly be called thoughtful, open-minded or impartial. Or then again, less kindly, branded an apologist, a dupe or a useful idiot. The might even be a denier, which is almost always bad, whereas a contrarian is generally better.

Writers should be aware of the power of words; and I’ve no doubt many of the above examples are used in full knowledge of their impact and subtext, deployed deliberately to support a particular point of view. Other times they are used less artfully, an unconscious choice that may reveal more about their user’s beliefs and pre-conceptions that they imagine.

No wonder words should be used with care.

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