Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Man-Cause and Effect

Writer William Safire, who for decades has authored the "On Language" column for the New York Times Magazine, is no stranger to general semantics, as evidenced by his most recent entry, I Don’t Do ‘Do’ in the April 10, 2009 issue. The brief reference occurs in the second section of his column, under the heading "War on Man-Causation" which begins like this:

When Janet Napolitano, the new secretary of homeland security, testified before Congress, she caused a stir by ostentatiously avoiding the use of a certain familiar word central to the mission of her department: terrorism. A reporter for the German magazine Der Spiegel asked, “Does Islamist terrorism suddenly no longer pose a threat to your country?” Napolitano replied, “I presume there is always a threat from terrorism,” and also noted that she had referred to “man-caused disasters.” She added, “This is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear.”

This is certainly a noteworthy bit of rhetorical invention, and as Safire proceeds to take note of it, he reminds us of general semantics' founding father, old Alfred K.:

The Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan commented: “Ah. Well, this is only a nuance, but her use of language is a man-caused disaster.” Noonan makes an excellent point of light: a word is not the thing itself. (That was the message of the general semanticist Alfred Korzybski, famous for “a map is not the territory.”) Renaming terrorism “man-caused disaster” does not begin to deal with the real thing that is terrorism.

An excellent bit of snark on Noonan's part, but of course, Safire himself begs the question of what is the "real thing" that is terrorism, or whether there is any "real thing" in the first place. Don't get me wrong, I am with Safire in the sense that there are real events that occur that involve the murder of innocent civilians by nongovernmental and nonmilitary organizations and groups.

Of course, sometimes any death of innocent civilians is called terrorism, but there are operational definitions that can be brought to bear, albeit with less than perfect boundaries, to distinguish individuals and groups operating as criminals from groups engaged in violence out of political (or religious) motivations; likewise we can also differentiate violence committed by organized police or military where there is at least some offical chain of command and semblance of accountability, even if it is the last resort of an interntional war crimes tribunal.

I think there's also cause for separating violence committed against civilians from violence committed against military and police officials, even though the latter is sometimes conflated with the former. But there is a sense in which a political uprising might with some legitimacy attack the organized forces and officials of what is perceived to be an illegitimate or otherwise tyranical government or invader, as opposed to targeting noncombatants and anyone outside of the chain of command.

When I was growing up, and the Vietnam War was raging, there were the regular armies of North and South Vietnam, the latter aided by the US, the former less directly by China and the Soviet Union, and there was also the Viet Cong, insurgents largely working within South Vietnamese territory on behalf of the Communists to the North. And the type of warfare they were engaged in would probably be called terrorism today, but back then it was called "guerilla" warfare. "Guerilla" is Spanish for "little war" and the term dates back to the Naopleonic invasion of the Iberian penisula at the start of the 19th century. As a child, I always thought that they were saying "gorilla" warfare, and you can imagine the mental picture I drew based on that!

But I digress. And really, the point I had set out to make is that "terrorism" viewed from a general semantics perspective is a high-level abstraction, and the only way to deal with it sensibly is to bring it down to more concrete terms, provide operational definitions (being careful not to reify them), and turn the single concept into an array of different, albeit related phenomena.

Taken to an extreme, we might say that each action that could or has been labeled as "terrorism" is an individual case and should be evaluated on its own terms, independent of any such categorization, and there is much to be said for such an approach. The devil is in the details, as the saying goes, but the danger as well is in not seeing the forest for the trees. We need to generalize, it's entirely useful to do so, but probably best to maintain our generalizations at a lower level than that of "terrorism" as a unitary concept. And it would be best to avoid what Wendell Johnson called "dead-level abstracting," that is, sticking to the same level of abstraction. To avoid it, we need to go back and forth, comparing the general to the specific, and the specific to the general.

To be stuck only on specifics, to deny the possibility of generalization and categorization in favor of a complete and absolute sense of difference, is very much in keeping with cultural and moral relativism, and postmodernism, and this brings us back to Safire's column, because in all fairness, he had his sights set on another issue:

Napolitano, however, is to be hailed for breaking the taboo that has afflicted the word man. Political correctness, driven by the abhorrence of sexism in language, has banished such phrases as the forgotten man, man on horseback, century of the common man, even man in the arena. The adjective manly is forbidden and mankind is out, replaced by humanity. Chairman finds its substitute in chairperson or plain chair (although The Times requires a writer to choose between and chairmanchairwoman). The only acceptable use of man is when it is introduced by hu.

Not anymore! Thanks to the vocabulary policy adopted at the cabinet level by the Obama administration, long-awaited change has come to lexical misanthropy. With the start of what phrasemakers could call “War on the Word ‘Terrorism,’ ” Napolitano’s coinage of the compound euphemism man-caused shows we finally have a top-level politico who can do nuance.

Safire is joking around, of course, and somehow I don't expect a return of the repressed man-terms just because of this one neologism (and might it be considered sexist in implying that only men cause disasters, a reasonable supposition at one time, but not any longer given that female suicide bombers have become practically commonplace?).

But for its poetic qualities alone, I do wish we could retrieve that word, so beautiful in its simplicity, man, as referring to the entire human race. But then again, maybe the human race is just too unattactive itself to merit such a perfect verbal representation. Maybe in our clumsy, awkard, bumbling ways, we deserve such graceless terms as humankind, humanity, and homo sapiens?

Of course, the map is not the territory, and neither is it the terror, Tory.

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