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Code Words

Americans often complain about a lack of political cooperation and civil dialog. The one thing that people on the Left and Right seem to agree on is the fact that we can’t talk these days. And that it’s the other guy’s fault.

One of the clearest signs of the gap between the political camps is code words. If you say “Benghazi” or “Obamacare” to Republicans, they seem to automatically think that they have damaging information on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The term “the Settlements” has become a kind of code-word for the Left.  If you say it, in many circles, you do not need to clarify what you mean or to make any argument—you have already made your point.  In fact, the term is deeply fraught; to both Hamas and Fatah, Israel itself is a settlement, an illegal occupation.  While I applaud the moral courage of such figures as J.K. Rowling and Scarlett Johansson in condemning the BDS movement on precisely the moral grounds upon which it stands, such challenges have not led to the kind of informed dialog that would actually take us forward.

Most recently, Europe has legalized the differential labeling of merchandise that comes from Jewish communities in the West Bank.  Such labelling does not make sense on either a political or a moral level.  On a political level, it ignores universally acknowledged products of “occupation” from Morocco and Turkey

This lack of parallel labelling is also a moral issue.  Presumably the European Union does not want to turn every person’s shopping experience into an International Politics quiz, but by only labelling Jewish products, the European Union is harkening back to the time 80 years ago when Jews were forced to wear identifying stars on their clothing.  The assignation of shame follows exactly the same pattern.

I understand that most people who are shopping for cosmetics, fruit, or Soda Stream do not particularly want to discuss the comparative histories and aggressions that characterize dozens of disputed territories in the world. In the University, however, and in the European Union, there is plenty of time for such a discussion.

But we’re not having it.  I would suggest that the major reason we’re not having it is because we’d rather rely on code words to give us a feeling of righteousness.  So the next time anyone on the Left sighs at frustration at the code words of the right, perhaps we should more honestly admit that we have code words of our own, and along with them, our own sets of blind spots and ignorances. And just as the word “Benghazi” has become a cover for a sexist sneer at Hillary Clinton (the myth of female incompetence), and “Obamacare” has become a chortling cover for racism (the nightmare of Black revenge through the denial of medical care), “the Settlements” has become the moralistic cover for a resurgent anti-Semitism (the myth of the thieving Jew). We might begin to build a civil dialog by pausing over, and thinking about, our own code words.

About the Author Michael Saenger is an Associate Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America. Related Topics Related Posts Comments