On 'The Right Way' to Describe a Terrorist

Recently, the always belligerent and sometimes insightful Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball vented his exasperation with those who criticize President Obama for refusing to speak of "radical Islamic terrorism." Why all this concern, he asked, with the religion of the terrorists? Was Mussolini's religion an issue? Does one refer to Mussolini as a radical Catholic dictator?

Analogies are important. They are an essential aid to leading the mind in the right direction. This analogy, however, leads nowhere. Mussolini did not wage war in the name of Catholicism. The terror committed recently in Paris, however, was carried out in the name of Islam. The terrorists did not just happen to be Muslims. It is a fair question, therefore, to ask: why the reluctance to speak of "radical Islamic terrorism"?

Matthews' criticism, thus, of Obama's critics, based on his analogy, was flawed. How about the critics themselves? One can discern, here, two main lines of thought. First, a concern with calling something by its proper name. Given that the terrorists were committing acts of terror in the name of Islam, why not so describe them? Isn't the truth important? Second, how can we hope to defeat such terrorists if we cannot even describe them correctly?

I'll take the second question first. Matthews himself gave a good answer. Who, exactly, he asked, is unaware of the fact that the terrorists are waging a campaign of terror in the name of (their version of ) Islam? It's not as if President Obama is keeping this fact from his listeners, or that this fact is in dire need of being brought out.

Which brings us to the first line of thought. If everyone in fact knows perfectly well who the terrorists are and what banner they're fighting under, why not say so? The question now before us, however, is not one of semantics (concerning the truth of what is said), but rather of pragmatics or rhetoric (concerning the point or effect of saying something). Clearly, President Obama (as well as Hillary Clinton) have come to the conclusion that using the phrase, "radical Islamic terrorism," in their public pronouncements is counterproductive. It would, it seems, in their opinion -- whether accurate or not -- do more harm than good. It would, in their view, only serve to further the intent of the terrorists to make it seem as if there is a war between the West and Islam, when in fact no such war exists, and thus foster hostility between the Islamic world and the non-Islamic world.

This is not to deny that President Obama has other reasons, as well, for how he chooses to describe terrorists. He is reluctant to call Islamic those who, he strongly believes, are in clear violation of the tenets of "true Islam." Yet is it not true that a bad Muslim is still a Muslim, just as a bad Christian is still a Christian, and a bad Jew, a Jew?

A crucial question, of course, still remains, namely, is Obama right about the question of rhetoric? That, however, is an empirical question, and I am certainly in no position to answer it. What I do know is that one cannot legitimately criticize the President on a matter of rhetoric, that relies on empirical fact, by alluding to a question of semantics, concerning simply truth, not the effect of proclaiming to the whole world the (whole) truth.

The distinction between semantics and rhetoric can be employed, I suggest, to illuminate other debates. Consider, for example, the "Black Lives Matter" movement in the US. When asked if black lives matter, some politicians, some political candidates, hesitate. "All lives matter," they reply, and are frustrated when their answer provokes hostility. You can practically hear them saying to themselves: "I don't get it. Who can object to the proposition that all lives matter? Don't all lives matter? Isn't the hostility my answer elicits a sign, rather, of the prejudices of the questioner?"

It's a question, again, of semantics vs. rhetoric. Of course all lives matter. To reject this proposition, as such, is, precisely, to be prejudiced. But in the context of current debates in the US about police brutality with regard to people of color, the question, "Do black lives matter ?" has a special force, rhetorically speaking. It is a question meant to reveal whether the politician under scrutiny has glimpsed the seriousness of the concerns of those who feel that their lives don't matter. It isn't enough to understand the semantics of the term, "all". One needs to understand the reason why the question is being asked, and what the political effect is if one replaces the term "black" with the term "all".

I see in both of these examples a microcosm of much that happens in political debates. Too much heat, too little light. A little clarity goes a long way. It will hardly settle the debate, but it's a precondition of any serious attempt to move forward.