Linguistic Anthropology and the terms of the Orlando massacre

It seems that linguistic anthropologists are being invited to play a role in making sense of the Orlando shooting, both in terms of addressing what it was and in terms of taking political action moving forward. The language used to talk about the shooting has become a hot topic, from Facebook walls (mine at least) to Presidential addresses. The question is, specifically, whether (a) the shooting ought to be called an act of “terrorism” or a “hate crime,” and (b) whether attacks that demonstrate some kind of connection (however tenuous) to ISIL or ISIS ought to be qualified as “radical Islam” or not. Two pieces (here and here) have recently appeared in the New York Times.

Referring to the criticism surrounding his non-use of “radical Islam,” Obama asked a series of questions linguistic anthropologists seem professionally trained to answer: “What exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change? Would it make ISIL less committed to try and kill Americans? Would it bring more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this? The answer” he goes on, becoming a citizen- (or Presidential)-linguistic anthropologist himself, “is none of the above. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away.”

The opposing side of the debate appears to be grounded in two beliefs. First, that “terrorism” and “radical Islam” provide the most accurate description of what occurred. In this case, as the thinking must go, both labels have a stable definition, and that the event of the Orlando shooting is a member of the set of things belonging to the descriptors “terrorism” and “radical Islam.”

Obama calls the argument a distraction with the purpose squeezing political capital out of the tragedy: “There’s no magic to the phrase ‘radical Islam.’” For those who adopt the view, however, the second belief is that semantic accuracy will, moving forward, allow the US to better target the problem and prevent future occurrences – a specific targeting and preventative measure most readers of speech event, I imagine, find abhorrent.

For his part, Obama appears to subscribe to a Juliet theory of language here, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet” (although in reference to a context which couldn’t be more perverted). According to Juliet’s theory, a label for an event itself does not change the experience of that event, our understanding of its nature, and the decisions available to us moving forward. A “Montague” is “nor hand, nor foot/Nor arm, nor face.” A semantic/pragmatic confusion.

Yet, in refusing to use the term “radical Islam,” Obama does believe that something is accomplished by its use; that is, if using the term is not strategy, not using the term is strategy. The thinking seems to be that associating the terror of ISIS or Al Qaeda with Islam, even a radical faction of it, plants a seed in the minds of listeners that the actions of ISIS and others are Islamic (e.g., this)– not simply some fringe group which perverts Islam, but with Islam as a religion with over a billion followers. Should this seed be cultivated, the very understanding of the nature of the conflict ISIS wishes to advance – that Islam is the enemy of the West – will become prevalent in the US.

Obama, in this way, does ascribe some magic to the term “radical Islam.” Given linguistic anthropologists prolonged engagement with the work of language, does the term “radical Islam” work on the American population in the way Obama fears? Discursive psychologists might have an answer, but we are reminded of Widdowson’s critique of Fairclough and Critical Discourse Analysis: is Obama here inscribing “significance” in the “signification of the sign” (in Widdowson’s words)? Or, in plainer language, does Obama believe that the import of the term in specific instances of use is the same as its abstract dictionary definition?

When I hear the work “terrorism” in reference to the Orlando shooting, I do not forget that it was a hate crime. If I hear a right-wing commentator cite “radical Islam” as having influenced the shooter, I do not then assume that followers of Islam might likewise be motivated. I do not need to be a critical discourse analyst to keep the issue clear in my mind. And I imagine it’s the same for most Americans, in the US and beyond. It seems to me that aside from heated exchanges about whether labels like “radical Islam” or “terrorism” should be used, the issue is in the end that some in the US actually believe the conflict with ISIS resides in Islam (as is perfectly clear in Trump’s desire to ban Muslim immigrants) and others who understand the conflict to be driven by historical conflicts, political ambition and instability, poverty, exclusion and forms of hate (i.e., not the set of beliefs that over a billion people devise ways to follow. A further issue is, of course, whether the Orlando massacre has anything substantive to do with ISIS at all).

Is there anything that linguistic anthropologists can contribute? Is the debate about the pragmatic action of the labels discussed a diversion, as it seems to me? Do labels really imply broader models of the world that listeners internalize through some psychological processes upon hearing? Or does the social action and activities of language operate differently? Can linguistic anthropologists characterize better the participatory frameworks within which words work and maintain, and thereby better clarify the communicative practices that keep Americans divided? It was not, of course, the label “Montague” alone that kept the Montagues and Capulets tragically divided, but more plausibly the local political and economic organization of the period that allowed kinship identifiers to undertake social action — thereby keeping a Romeo from a Juliet or a Tybalt from a Mercutio.

*Thanks to Eric G and Mark L for their advance reads and helpful comments.

**Cover photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

5 thoughts on “Linguistic Anthropology and the terms of the Orlando massacre

  1. There is a very recent example of linguistic anthropologists intervening on representations of a public policy issue: the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s committee on Language and Social Justice ran a campaign that aided efforts to “Ban the I-word” (‘illegal’) when referencing human beings.

    ( – LSA description
    ( – Race Forward video reviewing the entire campaign

    I think there is certainly some “magic” to these terms in the sense that it matters what words are used. And I agree with you that Obama is having it both ways a bit on the question of magicalness. We know that politicians use language with the intent of framing issues in one way and not another. Cases like “radical Islam” vs. “hate crime” (and also, as we’re seeing playing out here, “terror act” vs. “mass shooting” and “terrorist / terrorism” vs. “gunman / gun violence”) seem to involve framings of reality and also always positionings of “what kind of thinker or politician am I for framing reality in that way.” So somebody might say “homophobic attack on queer Latinxs facilitated by easily accessible guns whose sole purpose is mass death” as a *maybe* successful bid to persuade others their framing is the best one, but also in a *definitely* successful bid to position themselves as The Kind of Person Who Thinks Systemically and Takes a Stand Against Homophobia and Racism and Supports Stricter Regulation on Guns. Of course, since positioning efforts are always readable in more than one say, describing the Orlando shooting will surely be read by some as Clueless and Likely Godless Social Justice Warrior Who Is Destroying This Great Nation’s Great Traditions with Their Poisonous Liberal Groupthink.

    In other words, indexicals gonna index and haters gonna hate.

  2. Debating whether we call this “Radical Islam,” or not detracts from a very immediate and important (and linguistic anthropological) point. It is much more important identify the practices (speech events and acts!) within which these labels are embedded. After the Orlando shooting I read an article in the NYTimes that shed and entire new light on this issue for me. (
    According to this article, violent acts like Orlando and San Bernardino have been framed with a VERY SPECIFIC and PERFORMATIVE speech act. As the author writes, one influential individual, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been broadcasting appeals for violence of any kind anywhere against any types of “infidels.” Anyone who rises to his call need only send a quick tweet or facebook message pledging that the act they are about to commit is for his cause: Shooters “can pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before or during, and that catapults them from being a self-starter jihadist guy, or girl, to someone who can be lionized as a soldier of the Islamic State and regarded as a warrior.”
    Any act of violence then, can be framed as part of some larger movement. Anyone can be part of this army. The Orlando shooter and the SanBernardino shooter both made this specific pledge to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on social media before letting loose. This ability to use social media to reframe the varied impulses of anyone in the world as part of one movement illustrates the power of language to make claims on infinite forms of insanity for one’s own cause. I would never connect this to a specific religious belief. I would instead describe it as the dangerous forms that fascism /megalomania/paranoia/narcissism can take–and how language can be used to collect the infinite possible forms of anger, lonliess and sociopathic tendencies to one’s own singular and insane agenda.

  3. I think that’s a great point Betsy, and it’s an aspect of these crimes that most commentators don’t really talk about when they want to frame this violence as the actions of ISIS or “terrorism.” When Fox News etc. goes on blast about how ISIS attacked Orlando or San Bernardino, there’s little mention of how tenuous and easily performed “membership” in ISIS can be.

    1. Thanks Mark. I’m not in the FBI or NSA (contrary to what you were thinking!) or whatever group tracks this stuff, but practically speaking, this seems to be an important type of speech event to follow. This kind of speech-act-invoked allegiance seems to build the movement. In the Orlando case, specifically, the call to 911 served as another place to use the specific language invoking Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. This is the text of the call as published in the NYTimes (

      DISPATCHER Emergency 911, this is being recorded.

      GUNMAN In the name of God the Merciful, the beneficent [Arabic]

      DISPATCHER What?

      GUNMAN Praise be to God, and prayers as well as peace be upon the prophet of God [Arabic]. I wanna let you know, I’m in Orlando and I did the shootings.

      DISPATCHER What’s your name?

      GUNMAN My name is I pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State.

      DISPATCHER O.K. What’s your name?

      GUNMAN I pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may God protect him [Arabic], on behalf of the Islamic State.

      DISPATCHER All right, where are you at?

      GUNMAN In Orlando.

  4. Another issue that arises with terms like “radical Islam” has to do with how they fit into ISIS propaganda. I have seen many Americans passing around memes along the lines of “Don’t you see now, we are at war with Islam.” Unfortinately, these memes make perfect recruitment tools for ISIS among young musilims. It isn’t so much that there is something magical about “radical islam”, instead it is that ISIS can easily reintripret it to mean something else. When POTUS to says something like “we are at war with radical islam” he gets to star in ISIS recruitment videos, and nobody (especially Obama) really wants that. (Remember, there is nothing wrong with radicality in the persuit of virtue.)

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