Words as Weapons: Communication in an Age of Illiteracy

Communication is what one does with words and what they do to us.

— J. Samuel Bois, The Art of Awareness1

Our language points up contrasts and dichotomies while reality often falls through the cracks between the categories.

— S.I. Hayakawa and William Dresser, Dimensions of Meaning2

Aristotle was right in acknowledging that “the power of speech is intended to express what is advantageous and what harmful, what is just and what unjust.” Our ability, as human beings, to communicate with each other, to inspire and motivate, to exchange ideas about the world, has not only made life easier, but separated us from other breeds of species surrounding. And, it appears to me, the value of language (or communication) can be used to measure the quality of life within any society and community.

The words used; the verbs expressed; the labels invented—all measurements of a people’s understanding of, and connection to, reality. If this is true, what can be said of the “illegal immigration” debate that has taken greater command of the imaginations of our society in recent times? And what can be delineated from the key words bandied around ruthlessly?

Right off the bat, we are informed—by Right-wing ideologues—that Mexican citizens who cross the border overnight to establish humble livings for themselves in the U.S. are not “undocumented workers” but “illegal aliens.” In this context, there is little room left for the histories and backgrounds of the “criminals” to breathe. The policies that provoke families, for instance, to take such drastic measures is utterly erased—and condemned as inconsequential. They are “aliens”—foreign species unworthy of recognition and hostile to the well-being of human beings—citizens. That the combination of “illegal” and “alien” is nonsensical at best and intellectually valueless at worst never crosses the minds of the pundits and shock jocks whose hard work has brought it into mainstream and celebrated discourse. It would seem, to those below the legal alcohol limit, that no rational basis exists upon which to condemn an “alien” as “illegal.”

The very nature of an “alien” prescribes wholly different sets of principles—unlike the pre-established tenets used to punish or promote citizens—for engagement and interrogation. An “alien,” by nature, belongs to a different world and different geographical territory. And, if Star Wars is to be taken seriously, aliens demand unique devices just to understand them—let alone control and repress them. But the adjective “illegal”—as opposed to, say, “undocumented” or “unregistered”—came to life once brain-zapped nitwits, bent on dehumanizing otherized citizens (“aliens”), ran out of creative options to make ends meet. They convinced themselves: by adding “illegal” as a prefix, no one would be left unsure if our targets are innocent or guilty. Whether or not the term “illegal alien” is just as silly—if not more—as “illegal criminal” isn’t of mental merit. This, unfortunately, is the limit to which many are willing to go beyond in criminalizing and demonizing those seen as different—thus deficient.

It’s critical intellectuals and educators take seriously the effect words can have on citizens who otherwise consider themselves enlightened enough to stay clear of semantic manipulation. History shows even the most advanced of men and women can be seduced into unconscionable deeds by trained orators. As was the case in Germany during the Hitlerian regime, many never thought themselves that gullible, that impressionable; but even words that appealed to most as abstract and indirect evoked strong and costly reactions in the hearts and minds of everyday citizens.

Language scholars S.I. Hayakawa and William Dresser explained more definitely four decades ago how vulnerable human beings really are to “magic words”:

The Nazis purposely used terminology which appeared concrete but was in reality ambiguous and meaningless. The “enemies” of Germany that had to be destroyed, said Hitler, were the “November criminals,” the “red dragon,” the “Jewish plague,” the “parliamentarians,” the “democratic-Marxist-Jew,” the “Jewish bacillus.” All these referentially meaningless abstractions were in turn grouped together into the equally abstract “System.”3

English psychiatrist Anthony Storr added deeper layers in suggesting that Hitler’s words, specifically at Nuremberg rallies, “was not intended to convey information but took on the quality of an incantation or chant.”4 Storr noted that the marching bands and musical instruments preceding and proceeding Hitler’s remarks provided much cover for his oratorical deficits and “reinforce[d] the effect which the music, the banners, the search-lights, and the processions had already induced.”5 Thus, even the most inhumane and repugnant charges, in this sense, took on melodic tones—better digested and internalized.

Many on the extreme Right today, though not as powerful or skilled or smart as Hitler was, have been eliciting just as dangerous an effect in listeners’ minds. A man who shot his way into a Tennessee Unitarian church in June 2008 confessed he “hated the liberal movement” in America and didn’t care too much for “liberals in general as well as gays.” He was particularly disturbed by some of the liberal stances taken by the Unitarian church in past times.6 In a letter written right before his murderous rampage, the gunman expressed desire to “kill … every Democrat in the Senate & House [and] the 100 people in Bernard Goldberg’s book.” Here, he was making reference to a book written by the conservative commentator, 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken Is #37), in which liberals and democrats are recreated as America-hating traitors with deep-seated desires to see their country destroyed. Police officers also discovered other liberal-bashing books at the gunman’s house which, by their title, reveal how effective hate speech can be in pushing human beings over the edge of sanity: Liberalism is a Mental Disorder, Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism.

Shock-jocks understand that in times of economic uncertainty and political upheaval, human beings are vulnerable and impressionable, and can be manipulated with ease. A local Tennessee police chief explained how the church shooter, a 58-year-old unemployed truck driver, came to blame liberals for his financial woes: “It appears that what brought him to this horrible event was his lack of being able to obtain a job, his frustration over that, and his stated hatred for the liberal movement.”

Like in Hitler’s Germany when it was fashionable to blame the Jews, and in George Wallace’s Alabama where it was rational to blame the Niggers, so it is in the hard-Right’s America easy to blame the liberals, or democrats, or progressives—or anyone bold enough to think for themselves.

With tens of millions of Americans tuned into the various streams of talk radio, those who cherish the very foundations upon which a livable society stands must become more concerned about the level of acidity spewed daily in the name of Free Speech. Examples of the corrosiveness that today passes for rhetoric from those corners are endless, but a few are worth citing.

Consider the words of talk show host Michael Savage on Autism, which he considers “a fraud, a racket”:

I’ll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it’s a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out. That’s what autism is. What do you mean they scream and they’re silent? They don’t have a father around to tell them, “Don’t act like a moron. You’ll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don’t sit there crying and screaming, idiot.”7

Similar comments were made by fellow crackpot Neal Boortz who, in early 2008, ridiculed then-candidate John Edwards’ work on behalf of New Orleans residents, insisting that “so-called refugees” from the region who sought relief around the country following the 2005 category-5 hurricane “was just a glorified episode of putting out the garbage.” He went further:

That wasn’t the cries of the downtrodden. That’s the cries of the useless, the worthless. New Orleans was a welfare city, a city of parasites, a city of people who could not, and had no desire to fend for themselves. You have a hurricane descending on them and they sit on their fat asses and wait for somebody else to come rescue them.8

FOX News star Bill O’Reilly had laid the foundation three years earlier:

Now, our government has a duty to provide a safety net so these people aren’t living under bridges. But some of them are anyway, because all the entitlement money they get they spend on heroin or crack or alcohol. … Many, many, many of the poor in New Orleans … weren’t going to leave no matter what you did. They were drug-addicted. They weren’t going to get turned off from their source. They were thugs.9

These aren’t just the expressions of relatively heartless values and presuppositions; they are marching orders to listeners who, as is the case with one celebrated commentator, happily refer to themselves as “dittoheads.” And you don’t have to take my words for it. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh, currently the most listened-to personality in the genre, explained over a decade ago that the primary purpose of the shock jock is “to make you mad. And the formula for making you—the viewer or the listener—mad hasn’t changed a bit; yet people keep falling for it.” And whether the “dittoheads” who’ve made an idol of him are aware at all, his fulfillment is not in educating or enlightening, but in “stirring them up.” For Limbaugh, “callers are like music on a record station—you play the top ten. You don’t take bad calls.” These “callers” cannot be granted license to “control the show.” After all, “people turn on the radio to be entertained, to be entertained, to be entertained.”10

Unsurprisingly, Limbaugh’s language pales in comparison to those shared by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who, in a talk to Black radio announcers in 1967, cautioned broadcasters to be cognizant of “the role which the radio announcer plays in the life of our people—for better or for worse.” King praised the efforts of Tall Paul White, Pervis Spann, and Georgia Woods for using their airwaves to furnish social justice—educating, fundraising, etc.—during the Civil Rights battles of the ‘60s. “We would certainly not have come so far without your support,” King told them. “In a real sense, you have paved the way for social and political change by creating a powerful, cultural bridge between Black and White.” Dr. King believed the radio was the only avenue upon which the masses depended for information; and with that much given, much was required from radio announcers. King, nonetheless, acknowledged much still had to be done to expand the possibilities, on a national scale, of radio as an educational tool: “But, my brothers and my sisters, we are only beginning. We still have a long, long way to go.”

How disappointed might Dr. King be today, in what has come to define radio as we know it? How embarrassed might he be to witness the rise of the shock jock and the decline of the radio educator? And how morally indignant might he feel toward the various ways talk show personalities dangerously inflame passions and incite emotions in viewers—often culminating in lamentable episodes, such as Bill O’Reilly’s accused contribution to the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller (whom he numerously attacked as “Tiller the Baby Killer”). Media critic Rory O’ Conner explained in a Bill Moyers feature just how listeners are, as Limbaugh might put it, stirred up—over and over again:

Here’s the real problem. When you shock somebody, if you come back the next time and you apply the same stimulus, it’s not shocking any longer. It’s already happened. So you have to ratchet it up a little bit. So how do you cut through? How do you really shock? … [Y]ou have to constantly be jacking up the pressure. And ultimately, there’s gonna be some deranged person out there in that audience who’s gonna say, “You know what? That’s a good idea. Let me act on that.”11

When words are used weapon-like, to attack and destroy, to conquer and dominate, those who suffer the most are those on the sidelines—those considered spectators, entertained by the spectacle of cruelty. What is rarely addressed is how much of a psychological impact takes toll on the minds of listeners and viewers who, day-in-day-out, are terrorized by on-air personalities whose careers rest solely on calling enemies incendiary names and putting political fatwahs on the heads of opponents. If the incidents of the Unitarian church and the abortion doctor are of any significance, its clear more emphasis must be placed on the non-neutral observers who are “shocked” into ever higher levels of inhumanity by men who consider themselves little other than entertainers.

As Henry Giroux put it recently,

the language of oppression and cruelty becomes normalized, removed from the sphere of criticism and the culture of questioning. Such a language does more than normalize ignorance, illiteracy and irrationality; it also produces a kind of psychic hardening and deep-rooted pathology in a society increasingly willing to eliminate the policies that enable social bonds and protections necessary for a substantive democracy.12

In times such as this, marked by mass civic illiteracy, coupled with economic uncertainty, tripled with political instability, quadrupled with the arrogance of private and political elites, citizens are most vulnerable to the primitive suggestions of the low-grade thinkers employed by Right-wing organizations to bluster on for four hours daily.13 But it is also in times like this that those same vulnerable populations can be best uplifted and educated by concerned thinkers and intellectuals dedicated to making the best with what’s left of our wobbling world.

  1. J. Samuel Bois, The Art of Awareness: A Textbook on General Semantics and Epistemics (Dubuque, Iowa: W. C. Brown Co., 1973), p. 130. []
  2. S.I. Hayakawa and William Dresser, Dimensions of Meaning (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1970), p. 5. []
  3. Ibid., p. 50. []
  4. Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind (New York: Free Press, 1992), p. 46. []
  5. Ibid., p. 47. []
  6. Associated Press, “Police: Killer targeted church for liberal views,” MSNBC (July 28, 2008). []
  7. Transcript and Audio []
  8. Transcript and Audio []
  9. Transcript and Audio []
  10. Video []
  11. Bill Moyers Journal, “Rage on the Radio,” PBS (September 12, 2008). []
  12. Henry A. Giroux, “Language and the Politics of the Living Dead,” TruthOut (January 19, 2010). []
  13. Chris Hedges, “America the Illiterate,” Truthdig (November 10, 2008). []

Tolu Olorunda is a writer and cultural critic currently living in Detroit. He is also author of The Substance of Truth (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2011), a collection of essays on education, culture, and society. His writing has appeared widely online and in print. He can be reached at: tolu.olorunda@gmail.com. Read other articles by Tolu.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on February 2nd, 2010 at 1:32pm #

    Some societies have no words like stupid: they have concluded that neither the gods nor nature makes stupid, arrogant, stubborn, etc. people.
    These labels were invented by some people. They can hurt; yet provide not a sliver of knowledge.
    However, even all labels deceive unless one is aware of the fact that they come after facts.
    If one posits facts or descriptions first, and then calls names, no harm is done!
    Eg, one can say: s/he stole a loaf of bread; thus, s/he’s a thief. However, it wld be better to say that one theft doesn’t make one a thief.
    And if one steals a preparation H, bankers, pols, priests steal much, much more. As no one cld get as rich as they do unless they rob the rest of us- quite ‘legally’, i may add.
    So we are surrounded by people who steal, murder, torture , oppress, abuse, etc.
    But only devil wld forgive one who wld steal a slice of bread, but a pol, priest, banker will not ever! Welcome back to urnanshe’s days of 5.8k yrs ago.
    Basicly nothing had changed! Thanks for ur patience in reading this nonsense; nonsense, u know to whom!

  2. Estoban said on February 2nd, 2010 at 5:36pm #

    How peculiar it is to replace words that have been used for hundreds of years with new words that totally change the meaning of the original words. It almost seems agenda driven and certainly leads to less understanding in discourse.

  3. bozh said on February 3rd, 2010 at 9:15am #

    estoban,
    People make mistakes. In an idyllic society, people around a person who made a mistake [serious or less serious] wld or shld say: U can know only so much;however, we together can know more. And we as group of people will always make mistakes.
    So, please for your and our sake and peace of mind don’t call or deem self a loser.
    It makes lot more sense to say: U made mistake[s], rather than saying: Look, u’r stupid!
    yes, my agenda had been for the last 40 yrs to use language in a more sane way!
    Can u understand BHO? I can’t! As to why i do not know what’s he talking ab, perhaps some other time? tnx

  4. kanomi said on February 3rd, 2010 at 10:27am #

    Why are so many people sub-literate? Why do they lack the critical skills to think for themselves, to avoid being led around by whatever rhetorical flourishes some psychopath can muster? And for that matter, why is even the rhetoric of the raconteurs now written on a less than fifth grade level?

    Because education is abysmal, it is broken, and it was deliberately mangled and destroyed in order to turn a nation of citizens proud of their freedoms into a rot-brained mass of obedient workers and quivering consumers, beholden to a corporate police state.

    This article analyzes one symptom, remains locked in the divisive “left-right” dialectic, and does not look to deeper causes.

  5. Deadbeat said on February 3rd, 2010 at 12:21pm #

    kanomi writes …

    This article analyzes one symptom, remains locked in the divisive “left-right” dialectic, and does not look to deeper causes.

    kanomi hones in on the weakness of the authors analysis. It is locked into a “left-right” focus and doesn’t look into for example racism and capitalism as the driving forces in how the political discourse has degraded. Lack of education is one aspect, however the consolidation of the airwaves is another. The gains of the Civil Right movement lead to a racist backlash by the “white working class” who had no desire to alter their supremacist beliefs. And lets not forget the right-wing billionaires like Richard Schafe (sp?) who used their fortunes to fund the backlash. Also let’s not let the Liberals off the hook while their are associated with the Civil Right movement used their influence to limit the gains and goals of the movement and especially keep all movement constrained to Capitalism.

    Kanomi is correct. That this article is lacking a radical analysis.

  6. dan e said on February 5th, 2010 at 5:14pm #

    Richard Mellon Scaife, heir to the Andrew Mellon fortune via mother Sarah Mellon.

    Well I thought the article was not too bad as a “first approximation”; it did identify a lot of current symptoms/abuses. But I agree he missed, or maybe just stopped short not wanting to overload the reader’s understanding?– he did miss the essential point, which is “who controls the loudspeaker” and how loud is it.

    Without the amplification provided by our Zionist-controlled Capitalist Media Complex, Limbaugh would be just another crackpot raving into his beerglass.
    Amplification and Constant Repitition. As Joe Goebbels put it in his Diaries, “I never try to change anybody’s mind. What I do is reinforce existing prejudices in an entertaining way”. Limbaugh may be the most “entertaining” of the crackpots, or was until Palin came along? But if it wasn’t Rush it would be another “talent”: the decisive factor is still who controls the PA.