What a Difference a Word Makes

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This blog was originally posted on March 6th, 2015.

Language has made the headlines once again. We teach our students that word choice affects their arguments. President Obama has drawn criticism over the last few weeks, mostly from Republicans, for being what some critics consider overly cautious. He has chosen to carefully avoid use of the word “Islamic” in referring to ISIS terroristswho have horrified the world by beheading individual British, American, and Japanese captives, by burning alive a Jordanian pilot, and by beheading en masse twenty-one Coptic Christians.

Doyle McManus has written clearly and succinctly about the wisdom of Obama’s choice in an LA Times article entitled “’Islamic’ extremists or ‘violent’ extremists? The president is mincing words and there’s a reason f... McManus quotes Ted Cruz (R—Texas): “The president and his administration dogmatically refuse to utter the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ You cannot defeat an enemy if you refuse to acknowledge what it is.” McManus lets Obama explain in his own words why he is doing what McManus calls “walking on semantic eggshells”: “Al Qaeda and ISIL [Islamic State] and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders — holy warriors in defense of Islam,” Obama said. “[They] do draw, selectively, from the Islamic texts. They do depend upon the misperception around the world that they speak in some fashion for people of the Muslim faith.” His main point: “We are not at war with Islam.” If the battle against ISIS is to be won, it will be with the help of Muslim-led countries that do not share the radical beliefs of ISIS. Cruz may be right that you must acknowledge your enemy to defeat it, but you do not want to lump together under the same label that enemy and those who share your horror at what is done in the name of religion.

We teach our students that it may be necessary to stipulate the meaning of a term in the context in which they are using it. If communication is to take place, a reader or listener has to understand how a term is being used if there is to be any hope of reaching common ground, starting with agreement about what key words mean. Sometimes terms that seem to be cut and dried are the basis of heated argument. Is a child a child from the moment of conception? If not, when can that term be applied? Such questions affect legal and moral decisions. Is passive euthanasia equivalent to murder? Again, there are profound legal and moral implications.

By choosing NOT to use the term “Islamic,” Obama is making a conscious decision not to group the brutal members of ISIS with the much larger group that is all Muslims. We teach our students that the destructive power of stereotypes is the fact that they lump all members of a group together, in spite of individual differences. Cruz stated, “You cannot defeat an enemy if you refuse to acknowledge what it is.” What Obama is refusing to do is to suggest that all Muslims are America’s enemies. Whatever our students’ politics, they need to understand word choice as part of rhetorical strategy.

Source for photo: [Bird Eye, "Muslims in Mumbai protest against terrorism" on Flikr]

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.