There’s been some relabeling going on in the Obama administration. The “Global War on Terror,” a term criticized by the Left as too simplistic and truculent, and on the Right as too general and nonspecific, has been rebranded.
The “solution” would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. Read about one of the new terms and its rationale, according to Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano (and note that, while the Spiegel interviewer uses the term “Islamist terrorism,” Napolitano leaves the word “Islamist” out in her response):
SPIEGEL: Madame Secretary, in your first testimony to the US Congress as Homeland Security Secretary you never mentioned the word “terrorism.” Does Islamist terrorism suddenly no longer pose a threat to your country?
Napolitano: Of course it does. I presume there is always a threat from terrorism. In my speech, although I did not use the word “terrorism,” I referred to “man-caused” disasters. That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.
The second and related relabeling effort is to use the term “overseas contingency operations” instead of “global war on terror.” It’s got a real ring, doesn’t it?
It’s not clear who’s at the bottom of this one (the article mentions allegations that it was the Office of Management and Budget, but the OMB denies this). But the term has been used for a while by “senior administration officials,” so there does seem to have been some sort of directive from the administration.
This is an example of language designed not only to be dull bureaucrateese, but to obfuscate, neuter, and hide. Does anyone, even native speakers of English (or perhaps especially native speakers of English), know what this phrase actually means? That, of course, is the point.
This has been the province of government for quite some time. But it seems to be accelerating in the Obama administration.
Strangely enough, I see some of its roots in the efforts of therapists to use less blaming language when working with clients and their families. However, families are not terrorists, and when they’re in therapy, they tend to be there because they actually want to change, at least at some level.
Here’s an example of how it works in therapy: if there’s a child who’s gotten into trouble and has been regarded as a bad seed and incorrigible, the therapist can give the family a message such as “he’s not bad, he’s sad.” This can stop a vicious and spiraling cycle of rage towards the child in question, and help the family to be more responsive to suggestions for setting limits and transforming the child’s behavior in an atmosphere less harshly punitive and more conducive to cooperation.
It’s not appropriate in all cases, of course, even with families. But it can work quite well in a situation in which a child has been acting up because he/she really is crying out for help to the adults in his/her life, and is getting nothing but angry condemnation back.
The key point is that therapeutic clients and terrorists are different (duh!). The latter have not come to us for help. And although it’s true that Islamicist terrorists are indeed mired in an honor-shame culture, and are sensitive to language and face-saving, the situation is not amenable to linguistic gymnastics (and although author Richard Landes is speaking of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict in the following passage, he might just as well be speaking of the entire War on Islamicist Fundamentalism):
In this kind of war, negotiations will not work. The Palestinians cannot make any significant concessions to Israel without losing honor. Additionally, they view concessions by Israel as marks of weakness, as invitations to further violence, rather than as invitations to put an end to the war.
The idea that the administration’s linguistic changes will matter to anyone at all—except to draw laughter from the terrorists themselves, approval from the deluded pacifists of Europe and at home, and (I sincerely hope, just for the irony of the thing), anger from feminists who consider “man-caused” to be a sexist term—is a delusion.
The Obama administration doesn’t seem to get the concept of enemies who wish us dead. There really really are such people. And if you call them something nicer, and don’t label the war against them as what it actually is, you only earn their contempt, and their perception that it is you who are the weak horse.
And that’s a recipe for “man-made disaster.”
[ADDENDUM: Great minds think alike.]