I want to state at the outset that this article is not about political points of view. It’s about the way we communicate or fail to communicate ideas. I have been without political affiliation my entire adult life, but am very much engaged in social issues and social discourse. I am also a writer. At the point that social issues and writing intersect, I am fascinated—and yes, a bit disturbed—by the way people bend words to manipulate each other. This is particularly pronounced during election seasons which, like Christmas shopping seasons, have expanded over the years. (I saw a Christmas display yesterday in a local drugstore, before I’ve even begun to think seriously of jack-o’-lanterns and I think of jack-o’-lanterns a lot.)
The first casualties of this election season are facts, clarity, meaning and the English language—not necessarily in that order. The examples I can adduce to support my premise are legion, but I’m spotlighting this one because I’ve read it about half a dozen times today and listened to the interview and it’s mind-boggling.
Responding to a presidential candidate’s assertion that “Islam hates us,” the CNN host asked a guest supporter of the candidate to “make the case for why it’s okay to say Islam has a hatred towards America, and not deal with radical Islamism, not deal with the radical slice, but deal with the whole.”
To strip the question to its tightie-whities: If radical Islamists hate America, why is it okay to state that all Muslims hate America?
The guest replied:
“I think one of the problems we have, frankly, is when President Obama refuses to go there with radical Islam, you get the sensation here that, well, maybe it’s everybody.”
Let’s deconstruct. Apparently, we have a number of problems of some (unspecified) sort and one of them is that the POTUS refuses to go somewhere (unspecified) with radical Islam. When he does this, (an unspecified) ”you” get a sensation some (unspecified) place that maybe (an unspecified) ”it” is everybody. Ergo, it’s okay to actually state unequivocally that ”it” is everybody.
Seriously. What does this even mean?
On the face, it means nothing. The words, themselves, do not say what you may think they say. Any meaning here is entirely implied and the implication is that because the President refuses to say the words ”radical” and ”Islam” in a particular order (hardly an established fact, btw), he does not actually believe radical Islamists should be fought and that Americans are therefore justified in feeling that all Muslims hate us.
Okay, let’s look at that premise. Let’s assume for a moment that the President has never spoken out against radical Islamism. (In fact, he has repeatedly.) But let’s say he hadn’t. In what reality does that connect with the assumption that all Muslims hate America?
First, there is ample evidence that they do not. For one thing, there are Muslims serving in Congress. There are Muslim soldiers in our military and police forces. There are Muslims serving the country and other Americans in myriad ways in the public and private sectors.
Second, it fails logically: because the President doesn’t use a particular phrase, all Americans must assume an entire religion is our enemy? On what planet does that make sense? By what moral code is it justified?
The show’s co-host, struck by the sentence-like sequence of words she had just heard, broke in to ask the guest why his favorite candidate was “doing the same thing and not drawing a distinction?”
The guest replied:
“To be perfectly candid, I think he looks at this as a problem coming and he’s not alone. I mean there are a lot of people out there, distinguished people, who say, you know, that there is a problem with Sharia law and all of this kind of thing. So I think to some degree we’re dealing with semantics, but most assuredly there is a problem and we have to figure out what to do, how to deal with it.” (emphasis mine)
I hit pause to point out the emphasized phrases. Writers will recognize these as “weasel words”—words that convolute, diffuse, distract, or wiggle around the content of a sentence and, in this case, to suggest a level of veracity for that content—the sum total of which is that “there is a problem with Sharia law”. What that problem is goes unspoken as does the question of what this has to do with terms the POTUS uses for terrorist groups. The speaker finished with this:
“This gets to the issue of, you know, fixing the immigration system when we talked about what was her name, Tashfeen Malik, and coming into the country, and banning Muslims temporarily until we can figure out what’s going on with the immigration system.” (emphasis mine)
(Did anyone else hear Peter Venkman’s voice in their head? “This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together – mass hysteria!”)
The spoken-in-the-real-world sentence above is a syntactical train wreck, but it contains a number of highly charged buzz words that create an emotional coherence and seem to give the sentence meaning.
Let’s deconstruct. The subject of the comment looks at ”this” (whatever it is) as a ”problem coming”. Other people—he is careful to note that they are not just ordinary people but are distinguished in an unspecified way—also think ”this” is going to be a problem.
Only now the goal posts have shifted slightly and ”this” is now ”Sharia law and all this kind of thing”.
Wait. When did Sharia law enter the discussion? We were talking about whether the President was lumping all Muslims together in the same way the guest’s favorite candidate was doing, though ostensibly for different reasons.
Then the guest says that we’re “dealing with semantics”. In what sense? In the sense that whether the President (or anyone else) refers to ”radical Islamism” or ”radicalized Muslims”, it amounts to the same thing? Or in the sense that ”Islam hates us” doesn’t really mean that ”Islam hates us”?
In any event, there is a problem (still unspecified) and we have to figure out what to do about it. And this leads us to … fixing the immigration system and Tashfeen Malik (of the San Bernardino massacre) coming into the country, and banning all Muslims until we can ”figure out what’s going on” with the immigration system. Which, for the record, is not the same as the asylum system which is how the Syrian refugees (whose status was the subject of the broadcast) are entering the country.
There are a number of rhetorical devices at work here.
- The speaker first assures you that he is speaking ”frankly” and is going ”to be perfectly candid”. In other words, you will now hear a clear, unambiguous truth.
- But then, the speaker is vague, forcing the listener or reader to work harder to extract meaning. The listener/reader fills in the gaps in meaning with bits and pieces from prior information. Which bits and pieces will depend on where they have been getting that information.
- The speaker jumbles sequences of emotionally charged words and phrases together into a whole that may make no sense at all syntactically or logically, but that send a visceral message. There is a problem with radical Islamists/Sharia law/Islam and it’s coming.
- The speaker connects, via implication, ideas that are not actually connected: How the President speaks about radical Islamists and what we the people should assume about how all Muslims feel about us. Or Tashfeen Malik’s entering the country on a family visa and banning all Muslim refugees from the country. Or Sharia law and whether it’s okay to say that ”Islam hates America”.
These are wonderful devices for a speaker. He can lay out a whole lot of disconnected flotsam and jetsam and count on listeners to build a sturdy raft out of it. But if someone—a journalist, say—were to call him on it, and ask him to account for saying that yes, all Muslims hate America, he can with perfect candor claim that he said no such thing. I think this is why supporters and surrogates of politicians who use these devices have so much trouble articulating what was said, what it meant, or what the candidate stands for or against—the ideas are couched in so much extraneous debris that when you strip it away, there are no complete or concrete ideas left.
In this case, I have not yet made up my mind about whether this obfuscation is intentional or merely the result of the guest trying to answer a question he actually has no answer for because of what I said above: his favorite candidate is using the same rhetorical devices and he’s having trouble building a word-raft that is all rope and no wood.
So here’s the heart of what ended up being about a five minute segment:
Question: If you say Person A doesn’t distinguish between terrorists and refugees and it’s a bad thing, why is it okay when Person B does it?
Answer: It’s okay because Person B sees a problem coming, which distinguished people agree is Sharia law and Tashfeen Malik coming into the country and therefore, fix the immigration system.
Verbal squid ink.