Three Words

Terrorist, skeptic, irony.

As I. A. Richards famously observed, “The word is not the thing.” Nevertheless, words have power. In fact, one can easily argue that human beings cannot imagine something’s existence without giving it a name. Furthermore, once something has a name that takes root in one’s consciousness, it becomes extremely difficult to disprove its existence.

On the other hand, a word or phrase occasionally loses nearly all of its meaning. An example is the current usage of “literally,” as in “I was so embarrassed that I literally died.” The word adds vehemence but no additional information to the statement. Another peculiar example is “I could care less,” which somehow came to mean the same thing as “I could not care less.”

The current usage of three different words troubles me deeply for profoundly different reasons.

I strongly feel that the word “terrorist” needs to be expunged from the English language. I am not saying that this is feasible, or even possible; I am merely arguing that it has become necessary.

“Terror” is all right; we pretty much all agree what that means. The words “terrorism” and “terrorist,” however, have lost their link to the original concept. If the drift in meaning had been in only one direction, like the drift of the word “literally,” that might be tolerable. In this case, however, people who have never committed an act intended to terrify others are routinely referred to as terrorists today. Sympathizing with the cause of people who are willing to commit violent acts for a political purpose is usually enough. Any kind of association could lead to this labeling. Thus, in the period after Nelson Mandela’s death, some people called him a terrorist because in the eighties he was the head of the African National Congress, a group that used all means available, including acts of violence against civilians, to fight against apartheid. Mandela himself never was accused of any such act. In some cases, indeed, people are branded as terrorists who have much looser connections to violent acts. What they always have in common is that they are opposed to some existing government, and they are somehow linked to people who are willing to use violence to achieve their aims.

If that is what a “terrorist” means today, then we no longer need the word. We have a perfectly acceptable alternative, “rebel,” a person who uses whatever is at his disposal to overthrow a government or supports those who do. Maybe at one time rebels abided by a code of conduct that forbade acts of terror, but those chivalrous days, if they ever existed, seem to be long gone. So, to my way of thinking, Hamas, Hezbollah, and whoever we were fighting against in Iraq should all be thought of as rebels pure and simple.

This analysis is not quite right. In rare cases we do not consider the rebels as terrorists. The Frenchmen who used sabotage and other such tactics against the Vichy government in France were never called terrorists. They were “the resistance movement.” The rebels in Nicaragua who were funded by the Reagan administration were known as “freedom fighters.” Thus, it appears that only rebels whose cause we oppose qualify as terrorists. Maybe there is some other factor, but I don’t see it.

Why must all terrorists be opposed to a government? The famous “Reign of Terror” in France was perpetrated by the people who were running the first “democratic” government in that country. Were they not terrorists? What about the “shock and awe” campaign waged by they U.S. government? Was that not intended to terrorize the Iraqis who were tempted to resist the invasion? Consider also the fire bombing of Dresden and Tokyo and the atomic bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Does anyone argue that they were intended to do anything besides terrorize the enemy into surrendering?

It seems clear to me that in actual usage, governments can terrorize their own populace or the people of other nations without limit and never risk being labeled as terrorists. I can never remember the word being used to describe even the most brutal of dictators. Has anyone called Stalin or Pol Pot a terrorist?

The word is now therefore far removed from its origin. Ordinarily, this would not be a big problem, but in this case we are officially at war with the concept! It is strange to say, but it seems to me that the only way that this war will ever end is if we excise the word from our vocabulary entirely.

A lot of people call themselves “skeptics.” I have a lot of admiration for the members of the Skeptic Society and the James Randi Educational Foundation, two organizations that promote the scientific method. I have never been that good at science, but I appreciate the importance of the scientific method, and I am pretty good at probability and statistics. So, I generally understand the arguments being made in principle, even if I am unfamiliar with the subject matter, such as cancer research.

I do not understand why they have embraced the term “skeptic” as descriptive of their weltenschauung. The word “skeptical” is used to describe someone who who is not easily convinced or generally has doubts or reservations. About issues on which scientists have reached consensus – such as global warming or plate tectonics ‐ the members of these groups are probably less skeptical than the general public. So, the term “skeptic” is not an appropriate moniker, at least not a priori.

The worst part is the way that people who do not have a scientific perspective use the word. Almost everyone who appears on late-night radio to promote some absurd interpretation of reality calls themselves a skeptic. It is very common to hear someone say something like “I was the biggest skeptic in the world until my brother-in-law’s chiropractor showed me this article that proved that …”

In this case, I think that the solution is for the scientific-minded to let the nut cases have the word. That means that a new word is needed for those who think that people who make claims should have proof that meets rigorous standards. No such word exists in English, or at least I have never come across one. I suggest that an Italian word, rigoroso, be borrowed. The plural is rigorosi. It means exactly what you expect it to mean.

I see two advantages: 1) It provides a clear identity for people who reject claims that do not meet scientific standards. It is hard to imagine a researcher studying UFO’s or crop circles to claim to be a rigoroso. They never start with standards. 2) It allows the rest of us, who are not qualified to evaluate sophisticated claims in areas studied by science, to apply the same level of standards to other issues. The idea would be to set up standards of judgment before determining the truth or falsehood of the claim. I am thinking about historical research, which, in my experience, is not a bit rigorous. For example, the eleventh-century monk and writer Adémar de Chabannes has now been thoroughly discredited as an unscrupulous liar. Nevertheless, he is still often quoted concerning the state of affairs in his section of France for the simple reason that his works have survived. I don’t know what the standard should be for such a judgment, but perhaps the rigorosi could help establish one.

While watching the Michigan State-Ohio State game (and can some other network please outbid Fox for the Big Ten Championship game?), I heard the color commentator remark that Michigan State led the Big Ten in time of possession. He then claimed that it was “ironic” that in their last game with Minnesota the Spartans held the ball for only 21:19.

This is not irony. Do not use a dictionary to learn what “irony” means. Words do not do the concept justice. Instead, read O. Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” I suppose that you could also watch the movie.

We cannot let the term “irony” be degraded into meaning “unusual” or even “unexpected.” The concept is too important. In fact, I would say that many of the richest occasions of my life have been drenched in irony. Lots of very funny jokes contain no irony, but all of my favorite humorous stories have one thing in common – ironic endings. I absolutely treasure them.

Cut off both of my arms and legs if you must, but leave me my irony. And don’t debase the word “irony” either. Eventually, humanity might lose the concept entirely.