Other times, officials want to inflame rhetoric rather than defuse it. In 2008, a US government memo counseled personnel to avoid using words that have a positive association for many Muslims, such as “mujahidin,” “salafi,” “ummah,” and “jihadi.” It prescribes instead such English phrases as “terrorists,” “extremists,” and “totalitarians.” During the 50 years of Basque separatist uprising, the Spanish government tried to convince journalists not to describe the violence as a “conflict.” To deploy that word would legitimize the ETA guerrillas, whom Madrid generally prefers to call “criminals.” Similarly, during Angola’s 27-year civil war, the government often described UNITA rebels as “bandits,” a trivializing expression for a formidable force that was amply armed by the US and South Africa.
The more obvious propaganda often escapes us purely because we’re so immersed in it. It took an Iraqi acquaintance to make me realize that, early in the Iraq war, The New York Times and other papers misused the word “insurgents” for people who attacked US troops. The term lent our side more legitimacy than it legally deserved. If Webster’s is to be believed, insurgents rise up against a recognized authority, and not against an occupying force that defied international law by invading.
Reuters, which prides itself on being the only true internationalist news organization, made a point of banning the word “terrorist” in reference to the September 11 attacks, with the argument that one man’s murderous extremist is another’s freedom fighter. The news agency aims to avoid emotive labels so that customers can come to their own conclusions based on facts. Reuters’ decision highlights what is, perhaps, an obvious point: The way conflict stories are written can substantially affect the public debate around those conflicts. Words matter.
Vocabulary twists apply to other types of violence, too. In Mexico, a “drug war”—an inherently debatable term itself—being waged between rival gangs and against authorities and the public has killed more than 47,000 people over six years. Officials usually avoid the phrase “drug cartels,” and instead refer to the syndicates as “organized crime.” The phrase doesn’t adequately convey the grisly methods of the drug gangs. One thinks of money laundering and numbers-running, not vicious groups that hang mutilated bodies from bridges and leave severed heads on streets.
Yet the media are beginning to consider their de facto role as propagandists who unwittingly help normalize violence. Last year, many of Mexico’s biggest media outlets signed a voluntary agreement to refrain from adopting the “language and terminology used by criminals” in order to avoid becoming “unwilling spokesmen” for the drug gangsters.
The pact left it to individual newsrooms to decide for themselves which words and phrases to shun. During a gathering earlier this year in Ciudad Juarez, the border town that has long been the epicenter of drug-related homicides, reporters debated the appropriate verb for “kidnap.” Until now, common usage was the passive and tame construction se levantó, or “lifted.”
“That implies no one was responsible,” one senior reporter argued. “We should use more direct language like secuestró—abducted.” The assembled journalists nodded, and then quickly requested anonymity so as to avoid reprisals.
Likewise, they discussed the prefix narco, which Mexicans place in front of anything relating to drug lords. It often has an allure for impoverished youths impressed by the glitzy lifestyle. Reporters at the meeting weighed the glamorous associations of terms like narco Polo (fancy dude who wears designer labels), narc-architectura (mansions), and narco zoos (kingpins have a predilection for exotic pets).
“Maybe we should just ban narco,” someone mused.