National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
Web address:

August 26, 2003 
Vol. 1, No. 22

  It's time to listen to your mother: Watch your language
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

"Once we can agree that our weapons will be our words," David Trimble, leader of Ulster's Unionist Party, said in 1998, "there is nothing we cannot do." The man may have been more right than we ever wanted to believe. The war of words the United States is fighting now may be doing damage no military machine could ever hope to achieve. It may well wound our relationship with the rest of the world for generations to come. At the same time, if we choose them carefully, the words can heal our relationships, as well.

Communication theorists tell us that language has a great deal to do with the way we think. They compel us to look carefully at the words we use and why we use them. They make up language scripts to prove the point. If I like her, they remind us, she's "chubby;" if I don't, she's "fat." If I like her, she's "strong"; if I don't she's "strident". If I like him, he's "gentle;" if I don't, he's a "wimp." If I like him, he's "religious;" if I don't, he's "rigid." If I like her, she's "shy;" if I don't, she's "aloof."

The images slip past us like masks at a Halloween party. Every word changes the view, the opinion, the attitude, the character of the person with whom we're dealing.

And that's on the personal level alone. Imagine what words do in the international arena.

The words we use describe our version of reality. More than that, it creates the world we live in, as well. Words not only enable us to see what's in front of us; they also delude us into assuming what is not. We color things and create things and hide things just by virtue of the words we use to talk about them. Like "the axis of evil," for instance. Or "the civilized world," for instance. Or "terrorism," perhaps.

Consider the public vocabulary now in vogue. We are fighting a "war" on "terrorism," we're told. But no one ever defines them. In our "war" we never engaged an army in the field. We simply drove massive amounts of military equipment onto foreign territory, largely uncontested, and declared victory. So did this meet any definition of "war" or was it an "invasion?"

Now, as a result of that "war," we are dealing with organized attacks by people who cannot muster an army to meet our own, face to face, regiment to regiment. They do not wear uniforms. They attack and then melt back into the masses. They do not live in barracks. Instead, their weapons are pickup trucks rather than tanks and, to get us out of their country, they take aim at "soft" targets -- public buildings rather than military installations -- to stiffen the resistance of the entire population. So, who are they? Are they "terrorists," as we call them. Or are they "Freedom Fighters," as Ronald Reagan called the non-military groups who, under our direction and with our money, engineered more than one "regime change" in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile, for instance, by inciting the local riots that destabilized those countries.

Who gets to define those words? And on what criteria? Who decides what terrorism really is? When we do is it "covert action" but when they do it, is it "terrorism?" If a nation cannot afford an army, does that mean they have no right to defend themselves by whatever means possible? Are only armies certified to kill? And if so, why?

The vocabulary problem has become a problem of international import.

Now we are facing enemies who, we were told last week, are "enemies of the civilized world," a grand leap up even from the "axis of evil." The language gives any thinking person pause. It makes us look more closely at the meaning of civilization and the nature of evil.

If we are the greatest military power the world has ever seen and we threaten "shock and awe", and our frightened unarmed targets are terrified by the very thought of it, are we terrorists? Is it "civilized" to napalm women and children or bury alive those who would surrender as prisoners of war? Is it civilized to authorize the use of battlefield "strategic nuclear weapons," as we now have, which cross the line from instruments of "modern warfare" to the possibility of "planetary extinction" by weapons of mass destruction?

And is it civilized to refer to people from those Islamic cultures that preserved the writings of Greek culture and philosophy while the West was still in the Dark Ages as "enemies of civilization?" These are the people who gave us Arabic numerals and invented algebra. They opened the first hospital in 706 A.D., did the first cancer surgery and the first cataract removals. These are the people who developed anesthesia. They separated pharmacology from medicine. They organized the first ambulatory clinics on the backs of camels. They developed the science of opthalmology. The invented the pendulum clock and instruments of measure that enabled them, and us, to study the universe. They made poetry a matter of public competition and wrote prose that lives on to this day in one of them most read works of them all, "The Tales of the Arabian Nights."

Clearly, language does not necessarily define what the world looks like from the other side of labels meant to incite fear, loathing and the kind of blind hatred which, as Trimble tells us, makes it "possible for us to do anything." In fact, it commonly obscures it. We use language to make the enemy demonic while it forgives us any reason whatsoever to be self-critical. That kind of language is enemy-making. It's certainly not diplomacy. It's definitely not virtue.

Voltaire put it this way: "One great use of words", he wrote, "is to hide our thoughts." And sometimes not too well. We were brought up to "watch our language." It's time.

From where I stand, the problem is that the world we're creating with the language we are using now may shape our world for years to come. And not necessarily for the better. Every nation or ethnic group is capable of uncivilized behavior. When are we going to admit that we are no exception? Those words just might change the world.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to:

Copyright © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  1-816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280