“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
As previously discussed, language depends upon words having commonly accepted agreed upon meanings. One of the key tactics of propagandists is mislabeling. Humpty Dumpty knew all about the power and purpose of mislabeling.
To refresh your memory or in case you are new to the series:
Name Calling and Labeling/Mislabeling – Although both name calling and labeling tactics are common, I think they are best understood when consolidated under the term of “mislabeling”. Labeling in and of itself has utility. To return to the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, ask of each and every thing what is it in itself. To that end, an accurate label is a summation, the encapsulation of an idea. Where we run into trouble is when labels are misapplied or used solely to conjure a negative implicit or explicit relationship. When someone engages in this tactic (or is the victim of it), look first at the denotation of the word(s) being used. Are they accurate? It is not name calling when you describe someone acting in a sociopathic manner a sociopath. It is merely accurate if that is consistent with the behavior the person in question displays. If the label being applied is inaccurate, then that is your first hint that it is mislabeling and the speaker’s motivation should be suspect. A good way to deal with this tactic is to turn it back upon the user either directly or by deconstruction and clarification; make definitions – preferably objective definitions from credible sources – work for you and against them. This tactic is common on blogs and this counter-tactic is best suited for such an interactive environment, however, it is practiced elsewhere in media. For example, anti-abortion articles that refer to doctor who provide that legal and necessary service as “murderers”.
Even if the denotation of the word or words is accurate, ask yourself if there is a negative connotation to the word being used? For example, in modern American English, saying someone is a black man is an accurate term if that man is indeed ethnically black and would not raise an eyebrow under normal circumstances (context matters, but we are talking about labels only at this time). Now consider if that same speaker used the term “colored man”? If you stick to the strictest meaning of the word “colored” as defined by Webster’s (“having color”), then this may be an accurate label as applied to a black man. However, if you consider the broader meaning of the word “colored”, you’d know that using that word to describe persons of races other than the white or of mixed race is often – in my experience always – considered offensive. It carries a negative connotation of diminution, an implication of inferiority based on skin color. Of course, this is nonsense, but it is an example of a connotation being put to bad ends. This should also lead you to question the speaker’s motives.
Mislabeling is quite dangerous when effective because its relationship to argumentation. In an argument, one of the basic ways to gain control of the argument is to gain control of the definition of terms. It is a sophist tactic and it can be turned on its head just so long as you are mindful to correct the impression by reasserting the proper meaning of words and terms in use. Sometimes this requires repetition as a form of reinforcement as repetition is one of the adjunct tactics propagandists use to make their mislabeling stick in public discourse and the minds of the unwary. Recent tragic events have unfortunately provided a case study in the basic tactic of mislabeling. Those doing the mislabeling? Government officials. Those propagating the mislabeling unchallenged? The mainstream media. The word in question? “Terrorism”. A word defined by the OED as “[t]he unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” Keep that definition in mind as we look at some current events.
Here’s the timeline:
June 17, 2015: A mass shooting takes place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Nine people were killed and a tenth victim survived. The gunman is a young Caucasian male with a Christian background named Dylann Roof.
June 19, 2015: Department of Justice spokeswoman Emily Pierce says “The department is looking at this crime from all angles, including as a hate crime and as an act of domestic terrorism.”
June 19, 2015: Roof was charged with nine counts of murder and one count of possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime.
June 20, 2017: FBI director James Comey says that while his agency is investigating the murder of nine people in Charleston, S.C. as a hate crime, it is not an act of terrorism. Citing a lack of political motivation for his actions, alleged shooter Dylann Roof is not a domestic terrorist. He went on to say, “Terrorism is act of violence done or threatens to in order to try to influence a public body or citizenry so it’s more of a political act and again based on what I know so more I don’t see it as a political act. Doesn’t make it any less horrific the label but terrorism has a definition under federal law.”
June 20, 2017: A Facebook page is discovered with a manifesto written by Roof. In it, he states clearly defined political and social motivations for wanting to target blacks and is seen in photographs with various symbols associated with racist hate groups and spitting on an American flag.
July 7, 2015: Roof is indicted on three additional charges of attempted murder, one for each person who survived the shooting.
NOTE: The legal definition cited is compatible with the standard English definition of the word. To this day, Roof’s crime is not being investigated as nor has he been charged with domestic terrorism.
July 16, 2015: Four Marines are killed and three others injured when Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a young man of Arabic male with an Islamic background, opens fire on two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Abdulazeez is killed in the exchange. As of this writing, no motive for the crime has been uncovered or announced in the media.
July 16, 2015: According to U.S. Attorney Bill Killian, authorities will investigate the shooting as an act of domestic terrorism.
July 19, 2015: Reuters reports the following –
“CHATTANOOGA, Tenn., July 18 (Reuters) – Hours before the Tennessee shooting that killed five U.S. servicemen, the suspected gunman texted his close friend a link to a long Islamic verse that included the line: “Whosoever shows enmity to a friend of Mine, then I have declared war against him.”
His friend thought nothing of it at the time, but now wonders if it was a clue to Thursday’s rampage in Chattanooga, which has re-ignited concerns about the radicalization of young Muslim men.
“I didn’t see it as a hint at the time, but it may have been his way of telling me something,” the friend told Reuters on Saturday. He requested anonymity for fear of a backlash.
While a firm connection between the 24-year-old suspect and radical Islam has not been established, the shooting follows a series of attacks or thwarted attacks in the United States and other countries by Muslims claiming to be inspired by Islamic State or other militant groups.
Abdulazeez returned from a trip to Jordan in 2014 concerned about conflicts in the Middle East and the reluctance of the United States and other countries to intervene, according to two friends who knew him since elementary school.” (Emphasis Added)
The suspect, Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, a Kuwaiti-born naturalized U.S. citizen, was killed in a gunfight with police. The FBI is investigating the attack as an act of terrorism, but said it was premature to speculate on the gunman’s motive.
Your homework, should you accept it, is to monitor the news from Chattanooga and see if the definition of terrorism is proper or mislabeled as Abdulazeez’s motives become public knowledge. Will circumstances and political expediency and/or spin apply with an Islamic male of Arabic descent as they did to a Christian male of Caucasian descent? Will it matter that the victims in the later crime were soldiers and the victims of the previous crimes were black civilian citizens?
But that word they keep using? Terrorism. I’m not sure it means what they think it means in all situations. The definition the government uses and the media propagates seems rather flexible. After all, these are the kind of people who would start a land war in Asia and bet against a Sicilian when death is on the line. It certainly doesn’t seem to be applied properly in Roof’s case.
Which application of the word is “master”?
Also note the pattern in the Reuters piece of July 19 of “disclaimer/association”. This is a statement that may just be cautious journalism which is just good practice. However, such a framing is not unknown among propagandists either. It is a tuned form of the guilt by association fallacy in that context. Is that what is going on or is Reuters doing their duty and hedging until more facts are discovered? Personally, I think it is just good journalistic practice, but reasonable minds could disagree. Paranoid minds would most likely disagree.
What do you think?