If you control the language, do you control the debate? Choosing "freedom fighter" over "terrorist" or "insurgency" over "civil war" has the power to sway a political debate in either direction. But why? Bob speaks with Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at Stanford University and author of Going Nucular, about the role language plays in any political discussion.
BOB GARFIELD: Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information. He says language is used by governments and their opponents to highlight certain features of reality and suppress others.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Take the word "regime." People spoke of the Saddam regime, for instance, or the Baghdad regime rather than the government. And "regime" is a word that implies always a certain illegitimacy or instability. We talk, for instance, about the Latin American countries that have adopted democratic government we describe as "democratic regimes," but we don't talk about nations like France and Sweden and the U.K. as "democratic regimes." They're just democracies. Language like that always carries a point of view, and the media use the words in ways that pretty much accord with the assumptions that the government brings to them.
BOB GARFIELD: So do you believe that the media can and should be arbiters of what the right word choice is, or should we be leaving this to politicians? How do we alight on just the right word?
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: In recent years, certainly the media has been willing, perhaps too willing, to adopt the administration's usage. After the administration announced that they'd no longer be talking about "private" Social Security accounts but "personal" accounts, if you looked in the media in the two or three months after the administration made those announcements, the number of stories describing them as "personal" rather than "private" accounts doubled, which is a pretty clear indication of the government's influence. A lot of people in the media have taken to using death tax without quotation marks, without a little hedge like "so-called" rather than estate tax. The American media were extremely reluctant to use what Rumsfeld called "the torture word" after the first Abu Ghraib stories came out. And this is while the European papers, even the right-wing, even Murdoch's papers in the U.K. were using "torture" while the New York Times and the Washington Post for quite a while were dancing around that word out of a fear of either criticism from the administration or from, in particular, right-wing press watchdog groups.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it fair to say that he who controls the vocabulary really controls the debate?
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: I think that's fair to say, though I think people sometimes tend to look in the wrong place for that. I think the vocabulary that really matters here is a vocabulary about which the press is actually less aware and less sensitive than these phrases like "private accounts" or "death tax" and so on, where everybody's kind of keyed into the partisan significance of those phrases. So look, when I look in the so-called liberal media -- The Washington Post, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, L.A. Times -- in domestic political context at the word "values," I see that conservative values are anywhere to three to five times as common as liberal values. And that's not a matter of some dictat coming down from the editor of those papers, nor is it really a matter of a conscious decision. It's just that "values" nowadays in American speech evokes conservatism rather than liberalism. And you can go on with that sort of thing. But those are the usages that I think really move public opinion or crystallize public opinion, and they're ones that the media adopts, I really think, without much thought.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Geoff. Well, thank you very much.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Okay. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist and author of the forthcoming Talking Right: How Conservatives Turn Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving Left-Wing Freak Show. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, vets are on the front line in the midterm elections, and a look at the oil industry's PR campaign. Is it too - slick?