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