Among the Intellectualoids

Semantic Infiltration

By From the July 2010 - August 2010 issue

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Sen. Moynihan liked the term "semantic infiltration," which I introduced in an article in 1972. Semantic infiltration means one undermines one's own position in negotiations by adopting unknowingly the terms which the adversary "infiltrates."

Moynihan often used the term but he always gave me credit. A splendid gentleman he was. Moynihan was not only a superb senator and politician; he also was a great scholar -- a philosopher-king. In the year 2000 Sen. Byrd gave a valedictory speech for Moynihan, who had started his final year in the Senate. Byrd said, "Senator Moynihan is the kind of philosopher-politician who the Founding Fathers had fervently hoped would populate the Senate. Men, who, like Socrates' philosopher-kings described in Plato's Republic, are awake rather than dreaming." Not just the ancient Greeks, but also the Romans had a famous philosopher-king -- the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

A philosopher-king understands that infiltrating misleading words can gain an unwarranted political advantage.

Undocumented immigrant is such a phrase. It gains political advantage for illegal immigrants. The term is used by people who favor immigration, or by journalists who feel the term "illegal immigrants" is too harsh. The term "undocumented immigrants" is actually false because most illegal immigrants have forged documents, or a Mexican consular document, or a legitimate or illegitimate driver's license. "Undocumented immigrants" effaces the essence of illegal immigrants, namely that these immigrants came into the country and are here in violation of U.S. immigration laws. There can be only a few legal undocumented immigrants who have been authorized to immigrate but whose passport and visa were lost or stolen.

Racial profiling is a new term that infiltrated political discussions. Consider the situation of a policeman who saw an African American snatch the purse of a woman and run away. If the policeman wants to catch the thief, he obviously has to look for a black person, that is to say he has to use a "racial profile." Or if a border guard ought to intercept a Mexican drug smuggler, he has to use the "racial profile" of Mexican drug smugglers, not intercept a Canadian tourist who wants to return home via the United States. The accusation of "racial profiling" gains unwarranted advantage to those who want to hamper policemen.

Racist is also a term that has infiltrated our language. Anti-jihadists are called "racists." But Islam is a religion, not a race.

Xenophobic is frequently used as a label for the fear of, or opposition to foreigners, but "xenophile" is not used for people who welcome foreigners.

Likewise Islamophobia is regarded as a pejorative term. The Council of Europe passed a resolution in 2008 to condemn and combat Islamophobia. But Islamophilia, a reasonable term to describe the opposite attitude, is never used.

Hispanics is another term that infiltrated the bureaucratic language of the U.S. government. During the Nixon administration the idea gained traction for compensating people who had inherited rights. "Hispanics" was invented as a new category of Americans entitled to preferential treatment for college admissions and government contracts. But this category was flawed. Anyone whose ancestors came from Spain is now entitled to these benefits while a Brazilian is not.

Affirmative action is a relatively new label for policies that consider race, women, and ethnic background for preferential treatment. The above example of the use of "Hispanics" is a particular case of affirmative action. Infiltrating the term "affirmative action" to designate a government policy gives a nice-sounding, soothing label to the controversial policy of preferential treatment.

Industrial action is a new term the British Labour Party introduced for measures taken by trade unions, such as strikes or slow-downs. It avoids the negative connotations of "strikes."

Gays is an unusual semantic infiltration. The word "gay" meant merry, happy, and cheerful. Then since the early 20th century it began to mean homosexual and the original meaning has gradually been displaced. Today one could not call a group of happily playing children a group of "gay" kids.

Gypsies are nomadic people who emigrated from northern India to Eastern Europe, and since then to Western Europe and also to the United States. They are not well received because of their criminal behavior, including theft, pickpocketing, and leaving trash-littered camps in vacant lots. But the bien-pensants in England felt the gypsies were unfairly criticized and introduced the term "travelers." If homeowners in England now complain about gypsies who settle in a nearby park or vacant lot, the media will report that the homeowners complained about "travelers."

Underdeveloped countries became the label for poorer countries. But they complained that "underdeveloped" was too derogatory because they were developing too. So they were named "less developed," and then renamed again "developing countries." Weirdly, this concession implied the richer countries had stopped developing.

The utopia of perpetual growth became a widely shared belief during the period of economic growth in the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century. With the recession of 2009 this belief, of course, faded away. But it pays to remember the semantic infiltration of strange ideas so that we will not repeat these ideas that had confused economists and business leaders at that time. For example, when corporations had to reduce the number of employees, the preferred term was not cut, but downsizing. Any downward change in the gross national product was not labeled a decline but the oxymoronic term negative growth. Had this period of economic growth continued, a pay cut might have been called a negative pay raise. And who knows, a sunset might have been called a negative sunrise.

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About the Author

Fred Iklé is a distinguished scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.