The effect of language on our perceptions and actions toward world events
by Jenny Jiao, ’16 and Maeve O’Brien, ’16
Headline after headline scrolls across the television screen: “Isis targeting Europe for Paris-style attacks, says EU police chief,” “Prayer Shaming After a Mass Shooting in San Bernardino,” “Traveling in Europe’s River of Migrants.” Quickly, the news is passed on, from friend to friend, teacher to student.
Again and again, keywords and phrases are passed from person to person so quickly that few have the time to stop and reflect on what they’ve just heard, what they’re about to pass on.
In a world of flashing headlines, minute-by-minute updates and social media flurries, people rarely pay attention to the underlying meaning of the words they said.
The language used to describe current events in the classroom impacts students’ perceptions and understanding of those events.
The terminology that is used in class when discussing current events is so influential because often times teachers themselves are news sources for students. If a student is hearing about a current event for the very first them, their perception is automatically limited to what the teacher provides them with.
Language arts teacher Matthew Toohey often considers himself a news source for his students.
“More often than not, when I do bring up a current event or discuss it, [the event] is news to them,” Toohey said. “In the strictest sense of the word, it is new information.”
According to a voluntary survey of students, 52 percent of students indicate that they get the majority of their information about current events from either their classes or their friends.
Toohey attributes this to how students approach reading the news today.
“I don’t think students are news savvy,” Toohey said. “I think that we have been conditioned as a society to scan headlines and memes and gifs and vine videos, and that’s where we get our news.”
A Range of Reactions
Often, one event can be described in multiple ways, using terminology with different connotations. Therefore, using one term over another can color the students’ opinion of the current event.
A prominent example is the distinction between global warming and climate change. Even though these two terms actually refer to the same occurrence, they are often associated with different effects.
A 2014 report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications found that people associate global warming with more severe global consequences, such as ice melting, coastal flooding, world catastrophe and holes in the ozone layer.
On the other hand, people perceive the term climate change as having milder implications, more commonly associated with general weather patterns.
In addition, this report found that the term global warming generates more intense concern about the issue, especially in men, middle-aged to older people, liberals and moderates.
A separate nationally representative survey in November-December 2013 found that almost without exception, the term global warming is more engaging in the context of a conversation than climate change.
The terminology is more disputed because the issue behind it has evolved to become partisan. The 2012 Republican Platform did not mention the words climate change or global warming, and only made one reference to the problem of greenhouse gases.
In contrast, climate change has been on the forefront of issues advised by the Democratic party.
Students recognize the different connotations of the words too. Senior Jack Lebeouf observes how global warming is generally more controversial to use, because some people don’t believe that global warming exists and is human-caused.
“If you were to say global warming rather than climate change, I would probably automatically assume that you agree that global warming exists. I would assume a bias exists,” Leboeuf said. “If I was someone who didn’t agree with you, I would initially discredit whatever you were about to say.”
A similar distinction occurs between the terms domestic terrorism and mass shooting when characterizing a mass murder in the U.S.
While these two terms are often used interchangeably to describe the same event, each actually carries different denotations.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines “terrorism” as involving “acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law” and “appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”
However, in the U.S., the word “terrorism” is generally confined to be foreign. Senior Daniel Wang recognizes this assumption.
“The fact that we have the ‘War on Terrorism’ around the world creates a connotation that domestic terrorism is done by people who are un-American and that only Americans can commit mass shootings,” Wang said. “And I think that’s a weird distinction to make and isn’t helpful to our understanding of the event.”
Leboeuf also observes these connotations behind the word “terrorism”.
“Depending on motive, domestic terrorism is automatically associated with somebody who has adopted radical Islamic ideals rather than someone who’s just committed an act of violence,” Leboeuf said.
Based upon the definition provided by the FBI, domestic terrorism requires that the killer is attempting to make a political statement by targeting a certain group of people.
Thus, the infamous mass murders that occurred at Sandy Hook, Columbine and Virginia Tech do not qualify as domestic terrorism, because the motive of the killers seems to be only to kill as many people as possible.
On the other hand, the June 17, 2015 murder of nine African Americans in a Charleston, S.C. church fulfills the definition of domestic terrorism.
The same case could be made for the Nov. 27, 2015 incident in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in which three individuals were killed and nine were injured at a Planned Parenthood clinic in an attempt to express anti-abortion sentiment.
Similarly, Obama himself called the recent shooting in San Bernadino, California an act of terrorism, because it was intended to display radical ideals and make a political statement.
Even though both the Charleston and San Bernadino shootings are examples of domestic terrorism, UAHS students were more likely to identify the Charleston murder as just a mass shooting. 35 percent of surveyed students used different terms to describe similar acts of domestic terrorism.
The murders that occur as a result of hatred of a certain demographic and in an attempt to make a political statement can be labeled domestic terrorism, as defined by the FBI. Simply calling them mass shootings isolates the incidents and depicts them as products of lone-wolf, mentally insane individuals, rather than parts of a larger trend of xenophobia or racism.
Aside from the terminology surrounding current events affecting perception, the words used to describe groups of people is subject to the same scrutiny.
Individuals often overlook what a name or a label entails, and all of the implicit knowledge that comes along with it.
A relevant example in the news today is the terrorist organization that calls itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. While they proclaim themselves to be “ISIS”, different governmental and media groups have referenced them using a variety of names including ISIS, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), Islamic State and Daesh.
In the political world, politicians have chosen to call the group by varied names with varied justifications.
President Barack Obama exclusively refers to the group as ISIL, which media outlets and other politicians attribute mostly to grammatical correctness.
“Many politicians and media organizations that have chosen ISIL rather than ISIS have said they went with the former as a paean to grammar… Many argue that using “the Levant” to describe the region is most accurate,” according to Jaime Fuller of the Huffington Post.
However, House Democrats switched to ISIL for a much different reason. Groups were protesting the usage of the name “ISIS” due to the fact that Isis is an Egyptian goddess that many groups cherished and worshipped.
Wang agrees that the name ISIS is not the most appropriate.
“I do not think [ISIS] is entirely accurate because I think this brand of Islamic extremism is not just centered in Syria or Iraq. It’s most present in those nations, but it might not necessarily be appropriate to refer to it as if it were just in those nations,” Wang said. “Also Islamic State can be taken as to encompass all Muslims, not just Muslim extremists, so that must also be used very carefully, because it can very easily be misinterpreted as a broad blanket.”
The French government has adopted a similar rationale as Wang, wanting to distinguish between Muslims and the group as to avoid overgeneralization of the entire religion.
“This is a terrorist group and not a state. I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims, and Islamists,” France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement last September to reporters. “The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats.”
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbott have both announced they will adopt the name Daesh to refer to the organization for similar reasons.
Daesh is an acronym of the official name of the group, al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham. Many in the Arabic world are choosing to call the group this because it sounds like the Arabic words Daes, which means “one who crushes something underfoot” and Dahes, meaning “one who sows discord.” In addition, the word Daesh itself has become an Arabic word on its own, meaning “bigots who impose their views on others,” according to The Guardian.
Not only is the name used to distinguish between the Islamic religion and the extremist group, U.S. Lieutenant General James Terry, who was the commander of the mission in Iraq and Syria, explained that the U.S.’s allies have requested for this name to be used.
“Our partners, at least the ones that I work with, ask us to use that, because they feel that if you use ISIL, that you legitimize a self-declared caliphate,” Terry said, according to the Wall Street Journal. “They feel pretty strongly that we should not be doing that.”
Wang concurs with Terry but also sees value in calling the group its self-proclaimed name.
“I think sometimes it’s inappropriate to put a name to a terrorist organization because in some respects we are giving them respect and we are acknowledging that they are a legitimate group,” Wang said. “At the same time, this brand of terrorism is cohesive, and it is an organization that is separate from others and has its own distinct following and distinct practices [and] sometimes it is appropriate to give a name to that because that encompasses their brand of action and planning and speech.”
Wang believes that though ISIS is not a legitimate state, the education level of his audience is what matters the most when talking about the group and surrounding events.
“Even though ISIS may not be the most accurate terminology for it, I think if we are properly informed about it, then yes we can go ahead and use it as long as we know the stakes that we are using it,” Wang said.
However, at UAHS, students are at odds about some basic facts of the group, as seen inthe survey, A Name Game, conducted by Arlingtonian.
Senior Sophia Fisher has heard of the name Daesh, but chooses to continue to use ISIS to describe the group and its activities, because she believes most won’t understand her if she says Daesh. She said using Daesh cannot send a strong message unless it is used by the general public.
“It depends on the connotation because if you’re talking amongst people who are informed and you want to send a message, call them Daesh,” Fisher said. “Until it’s used commonly, it’s not going to have any greater effect because if you say Daesh people will not know what you’re talking about.”
This dichotomy over terminology can have a variety of different effects depending on the person. For some people, labels are ultimately irrelevant, because the event stays the same regardless of what we call it.
“We are splitting hairs with terminology,” Toohey said. “Student A might be super offended by a term we collectively agree is the latest, least offensive term, whereas Student B might be open to using that term. We’ve created this culture that throwing words around is offensive.”
Toohey also notes that hypervigilance about terminology can even prevent open discussion within the classroom.
“Jumping on someone’s use of a term squelches the comfort of free speech,” Toohey said.
However, he recognizes that as a teacher, he has the power to affect his students’ thoughts about an event.
“I try my hardest to be indifferent, but I am sure I impact them or lead them in certain directions,” Toohey said.
On the other hand, using different terms can affect someone’s understanding of the given event. Since so many students rely on school, teachers, and peers for news, what words are used can influence how the student perceives the event, and thus, their beliefs towards it.
As a student, Wang sees language has the power to shed a different light on certain events.
“I think that the way that a subject or event is described can color your opinion of it, which is why it’s important to not just depend on a few sources.” Wang said.