9/11: The day the words changed

By 10 September, 2011Personal Blog

They say that on 9/11, the world changed. It certainly did change much about our world, and has reshaped the relationship (or lack of) between the west and the Muslim world. It continues to impact our daily lives – just ask anyone who has travelled by air, or look at the way the collective memory of American citizens leads them to react to events like earthquakes or large-scale accidents. New Yorkers seem to be living on a knife edge waiting for the next terrorist attack – as if their lives weren’t stressed enough already.

While reading some of the many reflections on the September 11 attacks, and what has changed since then, I was struck by a significant change to a very important part of our lives: language. As the great linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf said: “Language shapes what we think, and determines what we can think about”. The newspeak in Orwell’s classic 1984 is a prototypical example of governments using language to control a population, and research into how language changes the way we look at the world supports this.
One word in one article hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s a word we see way too often these days, and one that I don’t think was in common use ten years ago: radicalised. Back before the 9/11 attacks, we might have described terrorists or enemies as ‘radicals’. Now, they are people who have been ‘radicalised’. The difference is subtle, yet so important. One word is active; the other passive. The word ‘radical’ describes what you are. The word ‘radicalised’ speaks to how you got there.
If you call someone a ‘radical‘, then it’s a (typically negative) reflection on their beliefs and actions as extreme, or favouring drastic reform, and implies that they are personally responsible for these beliefs. On the other hand, someone who has been ‘radicalised’ says that something (we are not sure what) has happened to them (not of their own doing) to cause them (again, not of their own doing) to carry certain beliefs. It’s as if they were walking along the street one day, and suddenly a beam from an alien spacecraft picked them up and took them on board, where they were poked, prodded and modified in some evil experiment, and then returned back to earth having been ‘radicalised’. What an awful thing to have happened to them! It’s not their fault that they are like this, is it?
This new word has changed the way we look at terrorism and extremism (and even, dare I say it, at radicals – although there don’t seem to be any of them in the world any more). It becomes an imperative to understand radicalisation, to address the terrible radicalisation of youth, and for some to deny that radicalisation is actually the fault of victims responding to attacks.
If you are unfortunate enough to have been radicalised, then you are magically absolved of any responsibility for your actions, as terrible as they are. In fact, you now have the right to fight for the coveted label of victimhood, and if you are really good at it, you can displace the initial victims whose response caused you to be radicalised in the first place.
This is the inversion that has taken place in the ten years following the September 11 attacks – an event where thousands of innocent people were murdered, and where pure evil was clearly projected onto the television screens of millions to see. This cataclysmic event seems to have shocked the world (in particular the Left) into a new paradigm, and a new understanding of the nature of good and evil, to the point where new words were invented to express this world view. This is the moral relativism epitomised by the word ‘radicalisation’. There is no longer any absolute evil in the world, only a search for ‘root causes’ that always seem to end up with ‘us’, and not ‘them’.
Pretty radical, eh?
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