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.