Civil War and Civil Language: Word Choice and the Newsroom

Today’s debate is on the use of “civil war” to describe the
struggles in Iraq. News organizations such as the Los Angeles
Times
and NBC News have begun to include that phrase in their reporting
. Other news organizations remain in a holding
pattern with terms such as “sectarian violence.” Tony Snow, speaking for the Bush
administration, insists that “civil war” overstates and mischaracterizes the
nature of the violence on the ground.

So what is a responsible editor to do?

The answer will be easier when we realize that the responsible
choice of words is one of the most important and common challenges in American
politics and journalism. Consider these
phrases:

  • pro-choice vs. pro-life vs. pro-abortion vs. anti-abortion
  • illegal alien vs. illegal immigrant vs. undocumented worker
  • refugee vs. evacuee
  • invasion vs. incursion vs. police action
  • prisoner of war vs. enemy combatant
  • Islamo-fascist vs. jihadist vs. terrorist vs. Muslim fanatic
    vs. Iraqi insurgent

The weight of these choices falls heavily upon the
journalist, as it should. For in
politics, each term carries ideological meaning, even as it appears to the
world in the sheep’s clothing of impartiality.
My terrorist, as they say, is your freedom fighter.

In politics, each term carries ideological meaning, even as it appears to the world in the sheep’s clothing of impartiality.George Orwell argues that political abuse and language abuse
together form the double helix of government corruption and tyranny. “In our time,” wrote Orwell after World War
II
, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the
indefensible. Things like the
continuance of British rule in India,
the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan,
can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most
people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political
parties.”

The corrupt create language, argued Orwell, that softens or
veils the truth through euphemism or abstraction: “Defenseless villages are bombarded from the
air, the inhabitants driven out in the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned,
the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets:
this is called pacification…. Such
phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental
pictures of them.”

The political language of our own time has mutated a bit from
what Orwell read and heard. Today, the
debate is framed by simple phrases, repeated so often to stay “on message,”
that they turn into slogans, another substitute for critical thinking. So one side wants to “stay the course”
without settling for the “status quo,” and condemns political opponents who want
to “cut and run.”

It is one job of the journalist to avoid the trap of
repeating catch phrases, such as “the war on terror,” disguised as arguments, and to help the public navigate
the great distances between “stay the course” and “cut and run.” Surely, they are not the only options.

It is one job of the journalist to avoid the trap of repeating catch phrases … and to help the public navigate the great distances between “stay the course” and “cut and run.”Which gets us back to “civil war.” The phrase itself is odd, almost an oxymoron. All other denotations and connotations of “civil” are positive, the antithesis of war.
We long for “civility” in speech and behavior, which is a sign of a “civilization.”

The phrase is almost ancient. One early use in English,
dated 1387, describes the “battle civil” between two Roman factions. Shakespeare uses the word “civil” at the
opening of “Romeo and Juliet”
to
describe the violence between the Capulets and the Montagues. And the exact phrase “civil war” appears in
1649 to describe the struggle between the British Parliament and King Charles I.

We should also remember that the American Civil War was once
called the “War Between the States,” which seems neutral when compared with the
contentious language of North and South that created the “War of the Rebellion”
versus the “War of Secession.” We should
remember that many terms we take for granted were applied retrospectively by
historians or other experts. (I
explained to someone just today how I — ignorant of the term “The Great War” –
always marveled at the prescience of those who named World War I, knowing that a
Second World War was sure to come along.)

But as long as we journalists remain scribblers of the first
rough draft of history, we learn to settle.
Our job is to find language that describes the world accurately but in a
non-partisan and — as my young friend Pat Walters
reminds me — efficient way.

Our job is to find language that describes the world accurately but in a non-partisan and … efficient way.So, while “illegal alien” turns people into criminal
Martians, so “undocumented workers” seeks to veil their illegal status. Which leads many journalists to “illegal
immigrants,” a compromise that seems clear, efficient, and, from my limited
perspective, non-partisan. Others will
and should disagree.

Which leads me to this conclusion:

Journalists should avoid the widespread and unreflective use
of the term “civil war.” To use it is to
play into the hands of those who would de-certify the press by framing us as
against our government and American interests abroad. More important, “civil war” is too vague an
abstraction to describe all that is happening on the ground in Iraq. The violence comes from Americans, from
civilians, from militia, from various Muslim sects (against foreigners and each other),
from mercenaries, from criminal gangs, from foreign jihadists. It is less the job of the foreign
correspondent to summarize information in abstract language than to report in
concrete and specific terms on what is happening.

The reporters in Iraq
are, to my mind, men and women of great physical and moral courage, performing
one of democracy’s precious duties — to observe the war as closely as possible — and to report it back to those of us who claim to govern ourselves. If those observations conflict with
government claims, so be it. We’ll argue
the definitions back home, and the news media here can cover that, too.

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