Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lost - or Gained - in Translation

Last week as the anniversary of the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran approached, some groups in Iran were marking the day with celebrations, calling it a “Great Day of Death to America.” The political me wants to get mad at them and be insulted, but the linguistic me thinks it just sounds like too much fun! They have the naming business down!

I want to go! Where can I get tickets for this “great day”?

I cannot even say it without my voice naturally taking an optimistic lilt. Maybe something was gained in translation. I could not help but think about each time I heard some news report mentioning the activities of the day: it sounds so great.

“Death to America” has been a standard translation for anti-American sentiments since the uprising in Iran surrounding the takeover of the embassy and holding the staff hostage for 444 days. It was one of the first great slogans I heard in my life.

Sadly, our politicians learned from the effective sloganeering. Now so much of what we hear is the message condensed to a soundbite - a news show teaser version of Twitter: lacking content, but catchy. The more media fragmentation allows everyone to selectively gather news, the better messengers have been able to shape their content. All manner of hatred has been couched in the most benign phrases.

Bigotry disguised by wholesome language is still bigotry. Labeling of the “others” separates. Demonizing anyone who disagrees becomes easy when hidden behind the latest motivational phrase. Name calling at the SAT level.

All sides are equally adept at manipulating language for their cause. If they were not, at this point, they would not be a side.

As strongly as I feel about certain issues, I intentionally follow sources who feel differently so I can maintain some perspective on the issue. When I feel strongly about an idea, it is because I have information and experience to support those beliefs and drive my actions accordingly. Others have different experiences that alter the way they react to the issue. As long as they have some kind of legitimate knowledge base and experiential case for their beliefs, we can discuss the issue somewhat rationally. When they have no legitimate knowledge base or experience to support their belief and are only relying on what a few talking head thought leaders are saying, there is no way to have a discussion.

Logic cannot debate emotion because emotion does not understand reason. Both are powerful tools at motivating people on issues, but logically approaching an emotional argument will not affect the position of the other any more than an emotional argument will not sway someone guided by logic. Both parties leave the encounter feeling the other as even more utterly wrong than upon entering the encounter.

As a word person, I find myself frustrated at each side’s use of generally innocuous phrases to convey a divisive idea. Whenever challenged about the idea motivating the phrase, the user immediately Shirley Temples some, “golly! How could you ever think that from what I said?” Meanwhile, racism, sexism, and religious bigotry exist openly more freely than in the last several decades.

Until we, in mass, stop letting a handful of “thought leaders” from each political spectrum dictate policy stances, we will continue function from the poles. Fortunately we always have the government we deserve. Despite the rhetoric, I continue to believe we are better than we have acted in the last decade and we deserve a government that is better than we have now.
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