January 15, 2015

Loaded language

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, January 15, 2015

Loaded language

Language can be abused, especially when it's loaded with emotion.

Philosopher Trudy Govier explains (in The Practical Study of Argument): “Through the use of emotionally charged language, a mood and attitude can be set without providing arguments, reasons, or any consideration of alternate possibilities.

Govier is quick to point out that completely neutral language is “probably impossibleand “too boring to be desirable. Nevertheless, when the emotional associations of language do more work than is justified by evidence, there may be problems.

One such problem is the perpetuation of bias. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) humorously illustrates: “I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool. I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing.

Govier calls this Our Side Bias. According to Govier, “It is often tempting to employ double standards when using language so as to use positive (or pro) language when describing your own side and negative (or con) language when describing the other side.

Here is a light-hearted sports example (from Govier): “We have star players, but they have prima donnas who can't work together. “We have aggressive players, but their players play dirty.

More seriously, Govier discusses terrorism. Those who support the Palestinian cause might describe Palestinian suicide bombers not as “terrorists but as “fighting oppression, “liberation fighters," or “martyrs.

Govier rightly points out that failure to acknowledge loaded language may be an obstacle to understanding violent conflicts.

However, Govier doesn't ask (but I will): Is one nation's terrorist simply another nation's freedom fighter and vice versa? Is Our Side Bias wholly relative?

Enter the need for careful thinking.

Consider this: in general, the soldiers of “our side” (e.g., Canada, Britain, U.S., France) tend to be discriminating in their targets. The goal, usually, is to strike against opposing soldiers/armed insurgents and avoid civilian casualties, even though this goal is, tragically, not always achieved; yet it’s severely criticized when not achieved.

But evidence clearly shows that Palestinian suicide bombers are not so discriminating: their goal—typically—is to destroy civilians. (Think, too, of ISIS fighters.)

So, on the one hand, civilians tend not to be targeted; on the other hand, they are targeted. This is an objective moral difference that shouldn't be dismissed by uncritical acceptance of Our Side Bias.

More generally, when loaded language is used in place of argument—when argument is needed—fallacious reasoning occurs: an unjustified bias occurs, whether it's Our Side Bias or not.

To illustrate, here is a Canadian political example (which I heard in last year's discussion of Manitoba's anti-bullying legislation, Bill 18).

“We ought to approve all sexual orientations and gender identities in order to promote diversity.


Here “diversity—difference—is assumed to be a good. Clearly, in today's climate of political correctness the word “diversitycarries much positive emotion. But is mere difference a sufficient condition for moral approval?

We should of course respect and accept all people, because each person has intrinsic worth (and because each person is made in God’s image).

But we should also pause, and think: Should we accept and affirm all our sexual dispositions and urges to behave in various ways?

Aren't some behaviours harmful to one’s self and/or others?

Think about serial rapist (and murderer) Ted Bundy. He had sexual urges that are different. But, surely, Bundy was bad.

Pedophiles have urges that are different, too.

(Theological note: There is diversity due to God's abundantly variegated and good creation AND there are diverse forms of brokenness due to the Fall/ moral rebellion, therefore not all diversity is ipso facto good.)

In other words, merely appealing to “diversity” as a justification of a moral position or public policy is to use loaded language. Because some differences are good and some bad, what needs to be addressed is the nature of the difference, not the mere fact of difference. Further argument is needed.

Whether we're discussing sports, terrorism, or diversity, beware of loaded language!

(Hendrik van der Breggen teaches philosophy at Providence University College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

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