Arts, Media, and Entertainment

Words Matter

The other day I was watching a news segment about British leader Tony Blair's decision to come down hard on those who engage in the kind of hate speech that incites violence. The program then ran videotape of a radical Islamic cleric standing on a London street corner. If Britain did not get out of Iraq, he warned, the streets of London would run with blood. The show then cut to scenes of the July 7 terrorist bombings, when the streets did indeed run with blood. It was a grim reminder of the link between violent talk and violent actions—Blair was right to throw the cleric out. But a few minutes later I turned the channel and watched a segment on gay "marriage." A gay activist was loudly accusing those who speak out against gay "marriage" of engaging in hate speech—as if it were just like the Muslim Terrorists. So-called "hate speech"—that is, any criticism of the gay agenda—has been banned on many college campuses, so say the activists, because it will incite violence. But will it? Come on, who is running most of the AIDS hospices in America? That's right: It's Christians. "Hate filled bigots"? Hardly. In reality, redefining Christian arguments as hate speech and bigotry is often an attempt to shame and silence us. And all too often, this strategy works. It not only stifles legitimate opposition; it changes the way people think about controversial moral and political issues. Before his tragic death in Iraq, reporter Steven Vincent wrote in National Review Online that "Words matter. Words convey moral clarity. Without moral clarity, we will not succeed in Iraq. That is why the terms the press uses to cover this conflict are so vital." For example, Vincent wrote, mainstream media outlets like the New York Times use terms like "insurgents" and "guerrillas" to describe the Sunni Triangle gunmen "as if these murderous thugs represented a traditional national liberation movement." But when the Times reports on similar groups of killers operating in Latin American countries, "they [often] utilize the phrase ‘paramilitary death squads.' Same murderers, different designations." This is important, Vincent added, because words like "insurgents" and "guerillas" have claims on our sympathies that "paramilitaries" lack. Similarly, reporters claim the U.S.-led coalition "invaded Iraq and "occupies" it today. "We could more precisely claim," Vincent says, "that the allies liberated the country and are currently reconstructing it … These definitions reflect the nobility of our effort in Iraq." Anyone who cares about success in our struggle against Islamofacism, or upholds principles of moral clarity and lucid thought—should combat such Orwellian distortions of our language." Vincent was absolutely right, and his warning against the abuses of language should be heeded. When our kids are watching the news, we need to help them recognize why one term is chosen over another, and how the reporter uses words to shape our views, whether it's gay activism or modern terrorists. In a world that pretends not to know the difference between hate speech and legitimate arguments, we must be ever-vigilant against those who twist language to suit their purposes—purposes often designed to silence and deceive.


Chuck Colson


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