I’m writing this primarily because I’ve been meaning to mention this topic for a long while now and I am really trying to avoid doing a paper for a class that I don’t like. With that in mind, I’d like to remind everyone that words matter. The words we use are more complex than I think we can possibly understand. They are shells containing ideas and thoughts and feelings and emotions and I think an infinite number of human experiences. Individual words can contain entire metaphors which themselves may reference metaphors ad infinitum. To prevent myself from completely going off on a tangent, words are powerful tools that need to be examined with excruciating detail if we want to know the truth of what a person is trying to communicate.
One of the most obvious choices for me to go to is the news media. The media constantly bombard us all day long with inflammatory, emotional words and catch phrases meant to elucidate certain emotions and ideas in order to get us to react in a certain way: become their audience. It’s hardly interesting for me to accuse media outlets of being partisan or biased, but the danger goes deeper than that alone. The sorts of stories a network covers and the way they cover them can have a huge influence on the viewers and whether or not those viewers remain in the ecosystem. That is to say, it is in Fox News’ (replace with MSNBC, CNN, ABC, what have you) best interest to create coverage that encourages the viewer to buy from advertisers (buy gold!), to support their consultants (neocon think tanks, largely), and to keep coming back to Fox News so that the viewer remains a part of that ecosystem. As I mentioned, we can without any effort at all attribute the same characteristics of Fox News to any other network, because as capitalist agents these groups have major incentive to maximize profit for the advertisers, the consultants and executives, and for the company itself.
Thus is born coverage that features the same talking heads (McCain, Graham, etc.) telling you to be afraid, to shake in your boots, because ISIL/Ebola/Al Qaeda/Russia (pick your favorite boogeyman of the decade) is coming for America, and they might be coming for you. Thank goodness, though, because the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute or the Institute for the Study of War already have the solution, and it’s simple! All you have to do is give up more of your money and your rights, and the government will take care of the rest. Easy!
I have oversimplified my case to this example primarily because I think it is one that is already easy for us to believe. I think that the same sort of logic can be applied to the concept of how it seems so in vogue to call things a “war on” something (war on women, etc.). Are we becoming angry about the issue because there is something the matter with our society or because some clever writer decided to make him or herself or his or her company some extra money by using inflammatory language? The fact is, that gambit worked, regardless of the facts. (For the record, I am using this as an example. Please don’t take this as a comment on modern women’s rights or third-wave feminism.)
I am willing to admit that perhaps I am in the minority. Perhaps I am the only one who actually, even if only for a moment, thinks of an actual war when I hear the phrase “war on women.” I do not think that is the case, though. Words seem to me to be intimate and inherently human. As such, they can evoke powerful emotion in our minds all on their own. It’s hardly a nuanced idea that exaggeration can be dangerous and deceptive, but in the age of mass media those words can have incredible effects that I think have been taking hold over the last few decades or so. When the narrative can be morphed using the power of metaphor, our ideas and attitudes change perhaps drastically. Our thoughts and feelings can become slaves to the tug of a meaning hidden behind a word that we might not even recognize.
Bear in mind, when words are used to be inflammatory in a malicious way, we call that something else: propaganda.