Undermining The Rhetoric of Triumph

A recent news item stated that IS ‘claimed responsibility’ for the Istanbul shooting. We are so accustomed to the use of that phrase that we don’t really think about it any more. Yesterday I suggested on Twitter that we should think about it; that by continuing to use the phrase we are effectively contributing to the rhetoric of triumph commonly used by IS as part of its media campaign. The response was interesting. Most people ignored my tweet, as one would expect; many saw the point and agreed; a few misunderstood; and some reacted in a way that suggested to me, at any rate, how easy it is to play IS’s game while trying to be scrupulously neutral and exact.

In ordinary speech, the word ‘claim’ has two principal uses. One is to state or assert something for which typically no evidence or proof is provided, e.g. ‘She claimed to come from a rich Ruritanian family’; ‘He claimed to be a great writer.’ The other is to assert that one has gained or achieved something worthwhile, e.g. ‘He claimed the victory’; ‘She claimed to have overcome opposition to their plans.’ It can be argued that to ‘claim responsibility’ for something is fairly neutral, but I’m not sure that is usually the case. We admit responsibility for crime, for sin, for wrongdoing, even for minor mishaps, e.g. not just ‘They admitted they had stolen the money’ but also ‘They admitted they were responsible for the confusion’. It would sound odd (to my ears, at any rate) to say ‘They claimed responsibility for stealing the money’ or ‘They claimed responsibility for the confusion’ although, if someone were trying to protect another, one might use that expression — but again, it would suggest that something good and honourable were behind the claim.

The difference betwen literal meaning and nuance is important when we come to consideration of rhetoric, i.e. language designed to have an impressive or persuasive effect on others. It is often said that IS claims more than it actually does, and yesterday some of those who took issue with my tweet pointed out, quite rightly, that the use of the word ‘claim’ was literally true: we do not know whether IS was responsible for the Istanbul shooting or not. I don’t dispute that. My point had to do with nuance not literal meaning, with rhetoric, not the plain statement of facts.

Western leaders have been worrying for a long time about the ‘radicalisation’ of Muslim youth but, by and large, have failed to address any of its root causes. Meanwhile IS continues to wage a sickeningly effective media campaign, and we seem to be always one step or more behind in tackling it. There are times when, it seems to me, we despair. Yet there are things we can do. I think we can begin to undermine the rhetoric of triumph IS regularly employs by a simple substitution of ‘admit’ for ‘claim’. We can assert the dignity of every human being and their right to life by refusing to collude with the idea that murder is ever justifiable. The words we use matter, and although it may seem blindingly obvious to some, or ridiculously naive to others, the words we use about IS are probably some of the most important we shall utter this year. Today’s reading from the prologue to the Rule of St Benedict ends with the words of St Paul, “Let anyone who boasts, boast of the Lord.’ Better to boast of him than of the murder of any of his children, I’d say.

Note: I know some people are keen to use Daesh rather than IS, but I think how we report its atrocities is even more important than the name we give the group.

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16 thoughts on “Undermining The Rhetoric of Triumph”

  1. Thank you for an elegant explanation of the difference between nuance and truth.

    To be honest, I would expect IS/DAESH to claim every atrocity committed in the interests of their own publicity and media campaign. As you say, we have no idea of the truth or not of their claims, although, I think that the Intelligence Community could be more upfront in denying or confirming those claims, which would help us in understanding what are lies and what a misleading lied.

    I don’t doubt that the authorities want to draw a curtain of silence over such things – as they don’t want to enhance the IS/DAESH image, but their silence does it anyway.

    In a world of mistrust and post-truth as it has been described, a bit of honesty from the authorities ‘in the know’ so to speak, would help us to make our own, more informed judgments on the veracity or not of such claims.

  2. Well said, I don’t “claim” to understand all that you have said, but what I do know is that we are allowing a group of people who commit atrocities in the name of Our Lord to give themselves a pat on the back and every time this happens it inflates their ego. I’m not as educated as yourself but over the years I ha e lost count the number of times I have said ” it’s not what you said but the way you said it”

  3. The “official” announcements of ISIS are actually made in Arabic — what we are reading are translations. isis (and its supporters/enablers) will ignore comments made by infidels like us. I would also be careful about “admit” in that it could be twisted by Islamists to indicate guilt – and serve as further justification for their actions — here is a tweet I took directly from an experienced correspondent on twitter:

    “ISIS officially claims responsibility for #Istanbul nightclub attack. Statement refers to Turkey as “protector of the cross”.

    The “statement” itself is in Arabic and I could not put it here.

    • Thank you, but I thought my first sentence made it clear that I was talking about the way in which English-language broadcasters report the IS atrocities, not what IS itself says about them? It isn’t, therefore, a question of translating from Arabic to English but, rather, of expressing in English a view of what has taken place. It’s rather like chooosing between the word ‘murder’ and ‘shooting’ or ‘killing’ and the emotional impact each word has. Wahabist fanatics will twist whatever is said, if they want to. My concern is with those who are not Wahabist fanatics who, by a careful choice of words, can ensure that English-language reportage does not reinforce anny sense of moral rightness or victory/triumph.

  4. I think I must disagree with you, Sister. Using the word ‘admit’ rather than ‘claim’ in newspaper reports would be inaccurate, and in any case wouldn’t have the slightest effect on the behaviour of these people, even if they knew the difference in meaning between the two words. Their acts do the talking, not any words we or they might use. On the other hand, to readers of reports of their atrocities the verb ‘admit’ would give the false hope that IS were beginning to feel rather guilty and might soon mend their ways. ‘Admit’ is what politicians do when caught out in some dishonest act and when no other response but an admission of guilt is possible. Has IS ever expressed guilt?

    • Thank you, but why would it be inaccurate? A boast may be ‘truthful’ but it can be robbed of its power by being itself ridiculed. Why are you sure that changing the language in which we report IS atrocities (not just in newspaper reports but online and in broadcasts) would have no effect on anyone? As I say towards the end of my post, the problem of radicalisation among young Muslims in this country is one we are not really addressing. If we continue to suggest that IS is triumphant, I think we lend credence to the view that what they are doing is in some perverse way admirable and to be emulated. For me it isn’t a question of IS admitting guilt but of our saying they are guilty — and that extends beyond the language of condemnation from politicians to the language in which we report and discuss IS activities.

      • Perhaps ‘inaccurate’ is the wrong word, but for me, at least, ‘admit’ inevitably conveys the idea of ‘owning up’, and there’s an old saying: ‘a fault that’s owned is half atoned’. The word ‘claim’ does have a tinge of triumph, justified, alas, in the case of IS, but I’m afraid I don’t share your optimistic idea that, by a change of word, newspaper reporters can influence the beliefs or behaviour of a minority of young Muslims.

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