Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Response essay #4 of The Power of Words in War Time by Robin Tolmach Lakoff

(This was an intersting and thought provoking essay to read. My response does not do it much justice.)

Robin Tolmach Lakoff, a contemporary linguist, has studied the effects of language in different venues. In this article, which appeared in the New York Times, she unfolds the ever changing and ever present language of war. Documenting many dehumanizing terms, Ms. Lakoff presents to her readers several ways that the “enemy” is addressed. From the Greeks and Romans reference to everyone else as “barbarians” to the American soldiers’ reference to Iraqi prisoners as “it”, we get a glimpse of some of this terminology. She mentioned the idea of an Austrian ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, that “the more we see other members of our own species, the harder it is to kill them.” She also suggest that collecting the enemy in our minds as an “undifferentiated mass” helps us to not think of them as individuals who can suffer. She sights several historical facts, and bring her expertise to bear on the subject.

The purpose for Ms. Lakoff’s article is hard to know at first reading. However, upon reflection I can’t escape the impression that I am left with after each reading. Judging from the style of her writing she seems to be informing. I believe that she is informing, yet I can’t help but agree with her reasoning. Therefore, I think that she is trying to persuade me and her readers to choose peace instead of war. I was of the same opinion as the author before I read the article and found myself congratulating her for articulating this point of view the way that she did. This passage from the article shows clearly her point of view, “The linguistic habits that soldiers must absorb in order to fight makes atrocities like those at Abu Ghraib virtually inevitable. The same language that creates a psychological chasm between “us” and “them,” and enables American troops to kill in battle, makes enemy soldiers fit subjects for torture and humiliation. The reasoning is: They are not really human, so they will not feel the pain.” The danger and tragedy of ignoring the wisdom laid out here is endless war of course, but worse still could develop and has developed. Babies are called embryos and fetus, or blobs of tissue. If they are not babies they can’t feel the pain of being aborted. The elderly are tucked away in nursing homes. The atrocity that we hear about that goes on there, and in mental health facilities shows the evidence of dehumanization. It’s hard to know what hope that Ms. Lakoff has for the abolishment of war, but my hopes for that are dark. My hope resides elsewhere.

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