Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Dangers of Language

By Pete Shooner

I would like to explore an interesting topic that the article "Undocumented or Illegal?" brought up. Certainly, language can be powerful. Certain words and speech are deemed hateful or racial slurs and should be avoided. But sometimes speech that seems harmless can have negative consequences beyond imagination.

In the example from the article, the choice to use "illegal alien" instead of "illegal immigrant" or "undocumented immigrant" can and, some argue, does have serious consequences that manifest in peoples attitudes towards those entering our country.

I immediately thought of another language issue that has been around since 2001. The press will, without hesitation, use the term "jihad" and "jihadists" when covering aggressions from insurgents in the Middle East. Now, I must admit I have dug into this issue and the problems that arise out of it. An article I wrote explores the topic.

The main concern is that when we, as journalists, use the term jihad, we give credibility to the insurgents. Sounds backwards, doesn't it?

It's not, and our misunderstanding of the language comes from a serious ignorance about Islam. This religion is a major part of the lives of those we are reporting on, so we must learn about it to be able to report accurately. Within Islam, jihad is a fight for good and for god. It is a fight to defend Islam and its peoples. However (and this is a big however), only certain officials within the faith can call a jihad. Heads of state cannot; Osama bin Laden cannot; certainly, your average Joe the insurgent cannot. So why do we use this language when there has been no official jihad called?

It comes back to ignorance. We do not take the time to learn all there is to know about those who are different from us, those who are separated from us by time, geography, race, age, class or language. As a result, we make mistakes. Some are more harmless than others, but if you consider that using a certain word can make young, impressionable Muslims believe that those men who are trying to recruit them to fight are doing god's work, then it is clear how serious the consequences can be.

When covering any topic or person we're not familiar with, our best course of action will always be to learn as much as possible. Unfortunately, with deadlines and lack of money, most news organizations simply don't have the resources to cover issues the way they should.
But that shouldn't stop journalists from learning in their free time. If we never take off our journalist hat, and if we're always listening and looking for new story ideas, then we should also be learning, in depth, about the world around us. Only then, when the time comes to write that story on race, or poverty, or Islamic fundamentalism, will we be fully prepared to tackle these serious issues.

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