Misuse of Language, Media and War

18 July 2005
Achin VanaikAchin Vanaik on the Peaceboat

Misuse of Language, Media and War
Achin Vanaik on the Peaceboat 28 June 2003

We think in words. Who controls words and language controls our minds. Indian journalist and vocal anti-nuclear protester, Achin Vanaik, began his presentation on the misuse of language by telling the audience of his experience living in England in the 1960s. At that time, Indian people were known as "Coloureds", and Achin remembered sitting on a bus and looking across at a blonde haired, blue eyed, pink-lipped passenger, wondering who was the coloured one? Those in power control the words we use, and the misuse of language is vital to the countries that wage war.

Indian journalist, Achin Vanaik and the misuse and abuse of language by the government and media Achin outlined five ways in which language is used/misused:

  1. Dehumanizing the Human: To make killing another person more easy, people are labelled with inhuman names, for example "Gooks" in Vietnam and "Japs" during World War II. This kind of labelling is also used to justify racism and sexism.
  2. Humanizing the Inhuman: Evil is made acceptable by positively naming methods of killing. The oxygen-sucking bomb used in the US war on Iraq and Afghanistan was known as a "Daisy Cutter". The bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, were called "Fat Man" and "Little Boy".
  3. Distortion: After September 11, CNN ran graphics pronouncing "America under attack" and "War on America". When US forces invaded Iraq, the graphics were "Strike on Iraq" and "War in Iraq". These were simply dishonest terms. It was a "War on Iraq".
  4. Euphemisms - making the unpleasant pleasant: When civilians are killed it is called "Collateral Damage", when smaller attacks are carried out they are "Surgical Strikes", yet real surgery never takes place without permission and is designed to cure not maim.
  5. Selective/Hypocritical use of language: Who are the terrorists? Governments give the label, though many acts of violence carried out by states are forms of terrorism. The US has killed between 8 and 9 million people outside its borders, including the greatest acts of terror in history when dropping atomic bombs on Japan.

The good news is that the meaning of words is a political struggle, and that politics is not only for those with power. Political struggle is not a contest of weapons, arms or economic strength, but a contest of wills for the hearts and minds of all people. The US lost in Viet Nam because the people had courage, determination and moral truth on their side. When Nelson Mandela was asked at what point did he know the battle against Apartheid would be won, he replied, "We knew we had won when we had captured the moral imagination of enough people".

Achin made the point that we all have the capacity to resist, so we must therefore understand how language is used and misused against the truth. The centralized media distorts reality, and it is up to each individual to educate themselves about the actual events taking place in the world, or try and influence governments to create the independent space for neutral reporting.

Achin concluded his lecture with a call for progressive ideas and action, saying that it is not the morally evil that are the problem, but the morally indifferent: "Hate and fear build the roads, but they are paved by the stones of moral indifference".