NPR’s Geoff Nunberg on semantics and their control over public debate


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Hi Blog. Lemme do my weekend tangent a little earlier this week. It does relate to something I’ve discussed recently.

Pursuant to my Japan Times’ JUST BE CAUSE column earlier this month (June 2, “The issue that dares not speak its name“), where I talked about how the domestic media and GOJ deliberately refrain from couching the debate on racial discrimination in those exact terms — “racial discrimination” — and how that affects public awareness in Japan of the issue.

Here’s an excerpt of a June 3, 2009 US National Public Radio “Fresh Air” interview with UC Berkeley linguist Geoff Nunberg (June 4 podcast, from minute seven) which explores exactly the same topic, regarding the American media’s treatment of the debate on “torture”:


TERRY GROSS: I’m sure you’ve been keeping up with not only the debate about torture, but also the debate over what word to use to describe the interrogation techniques that were used. Some people have been using “torture” for a long time. Some publications say you can’t use the word “torture” because there’s a legal definition of “torture”, and that when they were doing it, they had a different definition of it courtesy of John Yoo and others in the Office of Legal Counsel. So, what are you hearing when you hear the debate about whether or when it’s appropriate to use the word “torture”, and if not that word, what word should be used?

GEOFF NUNBERG: Well, what’s interesting is that right after the Abu Ghraib story broke five years ago, all the European papers right away were using the word “torture”. The British, German, French press, left and right — not just The Guardian but Rupert Murdoch’s The Times were calling it “torture”. And the American press then and now have been very reluctant to use that word. And they have this idea that, well, this is a legal category. That’s because the [Bush II] Administration insists that it’s a legal category, and have defined it in a way such that these things won’t count as “torture” in the legal sense. The Administration’s definition obviously doesn’t have any broader legal significance even beyond the Administration, much less on a world scale.

And more to the point, it’s an English word. And the moral judgment that attaches to “torture” doesn’t have to do with its legal status. It has to do with looking at these acts, and describing them as “torture”. So that somehow, if the Administration was talking as if, “If we can keep that word at bay, we can keep at bay the moral disapproval that comes with it.” So you got all these terms like, “alternative sets of procedures”, and “vigorous questioning”, and of course, “enhanced interrogation techniques”, which people are still trying to use. And with that came this word “professionals” that Bush kept using. He said, “These are professionals; we want our ‘professionals’ to know that they can to this in a professional–.” Which suggests that not simply that they know what they are doing, but also that they are not taking any pleasure in it.

So I think this a perfect example of the way in which the words you choose determines whether you think something is alright or not. Not the thing itself, but the way you choose to name it. It’s something you see not just with torture, but with “suicide” for example. If you ask people in a poll, “Is it okay for doctors to help terminally-ill patients end their lives?”, you get a lot more people saying “yes” than if you ask them if it is okay for doctors to help terminally-ill patients “commit suicide”. Again, this is a semantic debate. But the important thing to realize is that this is not merely semantic.

Yes, quite. So if we can keep the word “racial discrimination” (as defined under UN treaty) at bay in Japan — call it “foreigner discrimination”, “discrimination by physical appearance”, or even “cultural differences” and “misunderstandings” — we can keep at bay the moral disapproval that comes with it. We can also keep the plausible deniability in the public arena that something very bad (as opposed to just “bad” or “misunderstood”) is going on, one that requires legislation to prevent it. This sort of thing happens everywhere when people play with words to dull or obfuscate debate.

Be aware of how this works. And be prepared to correct people who wish to shift the terms of debate away from the cold, hard truth. That discrimination against foreigners can be, or is in most cases, the same as discrimination by race. Even UN treaty that Japan signed says so.

Arudou Debito in Sapporo

PS: And BTW, if you have any doubts that “torture” actually went on at Abu Ghraib, I recommend my two dinnertime movies this week:

1) “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” (Rory Kennedy, director)
2) “Standard Operating Procedure” (Errol Morris, director)

Both excellent. And both proof positive that Stanley Milgram’s experiments really got to the cold, hard truth.

4 comments on “NPR’s Geoff Nunberg on semantics and their control over public debate

  • Quite true.

    Attempts to define words do not take place in a vacuum – there are often various social and political pressure involved. And when lawyers construct a definition of a word, it is an artificial construct that does not necesarily need to have any relationship at all to the commonly-used or commonly understood definition. We see this all the time. So how do we prevent debate being derailed by this kind of nitpicking of terminology and definitions? I don’t know the answer, but public awareness of the issue itself is probably the best start.

    So we need to be clear from the outset that public discourse on an issue must be kept free and clear from the artifices of what legal definitions have been prescribed. They are not useful for us, but merely create confusion among the debate. Legal definitions are for courtrooms, and legal discourse. Outside of the courtroom, we all know what torture means, by and large, and we share a basic common understanding. We may not agree of the minutia, but focussing on the minutia really misses the point – solve the basic issue first – i.e., do we allow torture under any circumstances?

  • I do not understand your strategy.

    I would rather have Government of Japan address specifically to “foreigner discrimination” than to “racial discrimination”.

    When people hear the word “racial discrimination”, what comes to their mind is “Black vs. White” and “discrimination against Blacks”. “Discrimination against Whites” or “discrimination against Koreans and Chinese by Japanese” is the last thing associated with the word.

    Though the word may ring a bell to Americans, most Japanese feel it irrelevant. “Racial discrimination? That’s nothing to do with me. It’s been a while since I saw the last Black.” Yes, you can preach the Japanese the UN definition of the word, if they are patient enough to listen to you till you finish.

    What is wrong with using the word “foreigner discrimination”? This is exactly the issue that I want the Japanese to think about. By using this word, they can think of the foreigners around them and feel their involvement in this issue.

    — I told you what’s wrong with couching the issue as “foreigner discrimination” in the aforementioned Japan Times column. People being discriminated against are not all foreign. Are we reading the source links, or are we going all willfully ignorant again, H.O.?

  • we need to focus on racial discrimination not just foreignor discrimination. Because like Debito just said there are many people that immigrated to Japan that were born in other countrys but they are still not treated as equal citizens simply because of the color of skin or the sound of there name etc.So race is the main issue overall.

  • If I might recommend a good book on exactly this topic:
    Unspeak: How words become weapons, how weapons become a message, and how that message becomes reality. Grove Press. 2006. ISBN 9780802118257
    Nothing to do with Japan but very interesting reading none the less.


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