Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Doesn't Have Quite the Same Ring To It . . .

The New York Times reports that the Bush administration is abandoning the slogan "[global] War on Terror" in favor of the considerably more cumbersome "global struggle against violent extremism." The former, despite its undeniable durability, has been widely criticized for the way it oversimplifies the multifaceted international effort to intercept and prosecute political extremists. UC Berkeley linguistics prof George Lakoff articulates his objections to the phrase thusly:
There are two reasons [why progressives should never use the phrase "war on terror"]. Let's start with "terror." Terror is a general state, and it's internal to a person. Terror is not the person we're fighting, the "terrorist." The word terror activates your fear, and fear activates the strict father model, which is what conservatives want. The "war on terror" is not about stopping you from being afraid, it's about making you afraid.

Next, "war." How many terrorists are there — hundreds? Sure. Thousands? Maybe. Tens of thousands? Probably not. The point is, terrorists are actual people, and relatively small numbers of individuals, considering the size of our country and other countries. It's not a nation-state problem. War is a nation-state problem.
Judging from this passage, it looks like Lakoff should be happy about this new semantic development. But for the rest of us, the question remains: will it make any difference whatsoever? My first guess would be no, simply because the article specifically indicates that the shift is strictly phraseological. Then again, the following quote makes it sound like the administration may think otherwise:
Administration and Pentagon officials say the revamped campaign has grown out of meetings of President Bush's senior national security advisers that began in January, and it reflects the evolution in Mr. Bush's own thinking nearly four years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
As a PR implement, the new slogan may be aimed at mentally conditioning the American public for a long-term ideological engagement with hostile forces on the scale of the Cold War. Perhaps it's an effort to discourage associations with the ill-fated Wars on Poverty and Drugs, the targets of which continue to resist defeat. It's also possible that by emphasizing the narrow methodology that defines the conflict, the phrase might ring more harmoniously in the collective ears of some of the populations that have found themselves under increased scrutiny since 9/11.

Or maybe the administration should spend more time formulating ways to prosecute a more effective war against terrorists and less time fine-tuning its public image with calculated language.