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October 2001

Violent Language Causes Trouble

By Jim Scanlon

On September 5th, CAVEMAN read, in a NY Times article, "Both Sides Are Right in Reading Wars," A senseless war over reading instruction still rages between proponents of phonics...and of whole language..." The clipping was yet another excellent example of how a simple differences of opinion is described as "war."

Many years ago, The Coastal Post founded CAVEMAN -Crusade Against Violent Euphemisms, Metaphors And Nouns -to battle against words that metaphorically imply violence, like "battle," wars" on crime, "wars" on drugs, crusades on this and that, "fights" that are disagreements, and "targeting" and "taking aim" at children, senior citizens, insects etc. The best example that comes to mind was a Republican Presidential candidate from Delaware calling for a "Rambo-like Evangelical Crusade Against Drugs." (Pat Buchanan had merely called for an "Evangelical Crusade") He was apparently trying to show he was really, really serious, in the cartoon like style prominent Americans use in expressing themselves.

Just a few years ago the Times, perhaps America's foremost newspaper, wrote this about a storm , "A monstrous, crippling blizzard...attacked much of the East yesterday and barreled up the Atlantic Seaboard on a diabolical track that targeted coastal cities like enemy bombers." The next day this was reported, "The blizzard of 96, broke off its ghostly assault on the citadels and hamlets of the Northeast..." (Does this sound like a terrorist attack?)

When one constantly uses violent language to describe ordinary events, it makes it difficult to accurately and believably describe really violent events when they actually occur. Our president has had this difficulty since declaring a "War on Terrorism." Despite an outpouring of genuine feelings of affection for our country, there is equally genuine confusion over who to declare war on, and how to convince an aroused people this isn't just another ho-hum war on drugs, or poverty, or profanity, or parking violators? Much of the public is so numb that an unusual event is described as "like a movie."

Obviously there will have to be some kind of a display of extreme violence to express the government's displeasure, most likely, in possibly the most wretched spot on earth. There is talk about appointing another "Czar." "Czar #2" will oversee "Homeland Security." on "The Home Front" (Actually the "Home Front" is really "The Front" or 'the trenches" in this war.). It seems like the Immigration and Naturalization Service will finally get the high tech national identification card it has been after. The first thing you you will be asked by an official will be 'ID please!' Or maybe just a hand stuck out and the words "EYE DEE!" The German police ask before all else, "Ausweiss bitte," and the French, "Card d'Identité." The Russians ask for "Otpusk" or "Propusk" or something like that.

This kind of talk makes CAVEMAN nervous and wary. How does one fight "Terror"? After all, the enemy, the terrorists are among us. So far they all speak Arabic, dress in western clothing and seem to have light brown complexions. They could be anyone in urban or suburban America. Despite the assurances of President Bush that our country's institutions are not affected, the economy, the market, have given very clear signals that we are terrified. On just one page of the Business Section of the Times we see, "Grim Realities Here To Stay," "Dazed Companies Sit on Their Wallets" and "Suddenly the Magic Is in Short Supply."

Not all of the rhetoric was war-like and CAVEMAN, for the first time in years began to feel a slight glimmer of hope. Several articles appeared analyzing the President's declarations of "war" claiming that "war" is really a metaphor, which seemed to imply that a "war on drugs" really isn't a "war-war on drugs" but an organized effort to eliminate the manufacture, distribution and use of substances declared illegal by the US Congress. For example, if "tobacco" isn't declared a "drug," it's OK, and presumably, if some of our "friends" "pressure" prisoners or use "extreme pressure" and they disappear, and are never seen again, and Jim Lehrer and Fox News don't say this is "torture" and "murder" then it's OK.

It was also reported in the Times that TV football announcers would not be presenting exploding graphics and would be avoiding violent references like "human projectile" and throwing the "bomb" during games--for a while at least!. Hollywood executives would also be avoiding "disaster" films, like thrillers involving a bomb on a plane.(CAVEMAN couldn't help but think of phony Hollywood special effects watching over and over in instant replay, the billowing orange red flames erupting from the shiny tower when the second jet hit.)

Michael Walzer, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study, writing in the Times, "First Define the Battlefield" said , " So is it a war? The word is unobjectionable so long as those who use it understand what a metaphor is. There is, right now, no enemy state, no obvious battlefield. 'War' may serve well, as a metaphor to signify struggle, commitment, endurance." CAVEMAN likes this and recommends that policy makers look up "metaphor," try to calm down a little, and think about what they are doing.

Steve McNamara wrote an interesting article in the Pacific Sun with a sampling of the numbers of humans killed in air raids on different cities during "The War to End Wars." It is difficult to imagine how more damage could have been done to Lower Manhattan with the means employed, but calling the WTC Plaza "ground zero" exaggerates and diminishes the awesome effect even a small atomic bomb.

But then, 12 days after the collapse, with barely one twelfth of the dead recovered from the hundreds of thousands of tons of debris, with vultures reportedly flying from Pennsylvania to the reopened Staten Island Dump, CAVEMAN read an account of how grieving families, "Put hope aside like an unused weapon," and realized that the Crusade Against Violent Metaphors, Euphemisms and Nouns will be a long, long crusade.

Here is just a sample of the violent verbal imagery in our daily lives from the staid pages NY Times:

"Two member of the US Civil rights Commission strafed each other and called each other liars."

"Katherine Harris the Florida Secretary of State accused the commission of "crafting a battle plan for politicians interested in wielding the sword of racial division."

"Charity Is New Force in Environmental Fight," "Fighting for Space in Memorial Heaven---A Monumental Struggle....[over monuments]," "[a Senator vowed]...a fight to the death...[over patient rights], "Senate Debate on Patient Rights Renews Lobby War."

"At Center of Senate Battle, and Ex Lawyer and a Doctor," "New Determination Is Seen Emerging in AIDS Battle," "Shock Wave in Israel Over Bush's Comment' "Easy Target or a Formidable Foe? (New Jersey politics], "Ex Diplomat to Lead Group In AIDS Battle," "Colorado Is New Battleground for Halting Bilingual Education," "Two Judges Do Battle In An Immigration Case."

And these on July 1, 2001 "

"Japanese Children Get Scary Lessons in fighting Violence" and "White House Battles Cuts in Spending For Disasters."

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