By Richard Cherwitz
Ever since Donald Trump came down the escalator to announce his candidacy for the 2016 presidency, the media, politicians and political pundits have spent much time analyzing language and its consequences. A common rhetorical refrain in our polarized political landscape has been: “Words matter.”
To be clear, the phrase “words matter” is far more than an oft-repeated cliché. As a communication scholar educated at the University of Iowa, for more than 40 years I wrote about a rhetorical concept I called “language-in-use,” noting how one’s chosen language often is repeated and then internalized by others. When that happens, I argued, a speaker’s worldview sometimes is taken on subconsciously by members of the audience. That may be one of the most powerful yet underestimated effects of discourse.
Ironically, many who say “words matter” — including me in several op-eds — frequently do not practice what we preach, not realizing the potential outcomes of our language. Too often, therefore, we fail to heed the concern for words in our own communication. One exception is Dana Bash, CNN’s “Inside Politics” host. This is especially the case in her stories and interviews about the dangerous rise of antisemitism at home and abroad. Bash should be applauded for not only understanding that words do indeed matter but also taking it to heart in the language she chooses.
For example, unlike other media reporters and broadcasters, Bash consistently calls antisemitism what it in reality it actually is: “Jew hate.” Why is that noteworthy?
As both a Jewish American and a student of language who published academic research about word choice, I contend that the label “Jew hate” is significant. It more explicitly and concretely identifies the target of antisemitism, namely, Jews. In addition to giving antisemitism a face, this label more precisely captures the seriousness and dangerousness of the problem, as well as its harmful outcomes.
As a colleague of mine astutely noted, “It would be very useful for the term ‘Jew hate’ to be used. It’s much more shocking than the rather abstract (and technically incorrect) ‘antisemitism.’ Even the definition of ‘Semitic people’ is rather archaic. ‘Semite’ used to be a euphemism for ‘Jew,’ as if ‘Jew’ were a kind of N-word.”
Put differently, “antisemitism” isn’t even accurate in that the definition of “Semite” is a member of any of the peoples who speak or spoke a Semitic language, including in particular the Jews and Arabs. As a result, the term “antisemitic” serves little as a description or warning.
Bottom line: the phrase “Jew hate” likely evokes a more visceral response, thus potentially having a greater capacity to persuade people to be outraged and take action to condemn antisemitism, especially when that language is subconsciously internalized by the audience.
Hence, if our goal is to quell antisemitism and other forms of hate that dominate our public discourse, we must become even more cognizant of language choices and how those choices impact behavior. After all, words really do matter.
Richard Cherwitz is a professor emeritus in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin. He has published numerous scholarly articles and op-eds discussing the use and impact of language, many of which focus on the dangerous rise of antisemitism.