Sunday, July 16, 2006

war of the words

Collective punishment is the spreading of punitive measures across the breadth of a society rather than selecting individuals for specific punishment. Thus the crime of one or a few becomes the crime of the whole group. It persists as a contradiction to modern civil law and due process, where the individual receives separate treatment based on their relationship to the crime committed. Article 33 of the fourth Geneva Convention specifically forbids collective punishment:
Article 33. No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.
Pillage is prohibited.
Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.
By collective punishment, the drafters of the Geneva Conventions had in mind the reprisal killings of World Wars I and II. In the First World War, Germans executed Belgian villagers in mass retribution for resistance activity. In World War II, Nazis carried out a form of collective punishment to suppress resistance. Entire villages or towns or districts were held responsible for any resistance activity that took place there. The conventions, to counter this, reiterated the principle of individual responsibility. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Commentary to the conventions states that parties to a conflict often would resort to
"intimidatory measures to terrorize the population" in hopes of preventing hostile acts, but such practices "strike at guilty and innocent alike. They are opposed to all principles based on humanity and justice."
Collective responsibility is a related concept, according to which people are to be held responsible for other people's actions by tolerating, ignoring, or harboring them, without actively collaborating in these actions. Of course, there are numerous Biblical precedents where whole communities where punished for actions which it was impossible that they were all responsible for. Collective responsibility, in the form of group punishment, is often used as a disciplinary measure in closed institutions, such as boarding schools, military units, etc. The severity and effectiveness of this measure may vary greatly, but it often breeds suspicion and isolation among the members, and is almost always a sign of authoritarian tendencies in the institution or its home society. Some of the best documented collective punishments were the mass deportations of several nations (Chechens, Tatars, etc.) of Joseph Stalin and the numerous Nazi atrocities.

More recently, Palestinians and the Lebanese have used the term to describe certain spects of the defense policy of Israel. With all due respect to Israel's own right to nationalism, it seems hard to explain how destroying Gaza's only power plant or Lebanon's only airport and other nfrastructure-based attacks do not serve to punish all citizens for tacitly aiding the singular kidnapping extant to each case. The response in both cases was the same, even though the circumstances and parties are as different as Sunni and Shiite. Israelis angrily deny this characterization, saying collective punishment of Israeli society could be seen in the tactics of suicide bombing public places and kidnapping soldiers. We could also argue that this is an ongoing war between two nations and all transnational wars include punishment of the other society. Extremist nationalism doesn't help matters, especially when Islamists are all too willing to use that old time European anti-Semitism to make their point.One thing that is clear is that collective punishment, as a term is what has come to be known as a power word. A power word (or power phrase) is a word (or a phrase) that is used to make one's statement stronger. It is a form of a loaded language and is the opposite of a euphemism, or a word which replaces a less socially acceptable word. In practive, power words supersede other similar terms in lexical availability. Thus while a synonym would be more semantically appropriate, a power word is chosen because it fits the opinion.

Such positive political power words would be children, democracy, equality, family, faith, freedom, God, justice, liberation, love, majority, morality, national security, the people, republic, and united. Negative counterparts include every slur from anarchist to unconstitutional. Constructions can be snowclones as 'tough on x' or morphemes like 'X-friendly'. Equivocating adverbs are also common power words, serving to cast an epistemic doubt on the opposing argument without addressing any of its points in detail: naturally means you'd be unnatural to think otherwise; technically, means if you look at it my way I'm actually right; and so-called is just a attempt at semantic decoupling.

This is not to say every power word has a strict polarity to its meaning, but rather each has a valence dependent on its audience. For instance, in debates on the WoT, you can see a three-way split between 'terrorist'(where the speaker opposes the subject's political beliefs); freedom fighter (where the speaker strongly supports the subject); and insurgent, which is nominally a more neutral term.

Politics is often the selling of ideas, so its no surprise that modern marketing techniques and political campaigns both enthusiastically abuse power words. What happens to power words when they are abused? They semantically decohere as their connotations run away from their denotations. To put it another way, they fall victim to the No True Scotsman fallacy.

No true Scotsman is a term coined by Antony Flew in his 1975 book Thinking About Thinking. It refers to an argument which takes this form:
Argument: "No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."
"But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge."

"Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."
This form of argument is a fallacy if the predicate ("putting sugar on porridge") is not actually contradictory for the accepted definition of the subject ("Scotsman"), or if the definition of the subject is silently adjusted after the fact to make the rebuttal work.

The prime example of how power words can semantically decohere would be the word epidemic. The original use of epidemic was referring to a swift moving and fatal outbreak of a viral disease. Its offical scientific defintion is defined by the number of medical cases over a specified time that exceeds expectations. Thanks to decades of hysterical use by government officials to refer to everything from video game playing to soda machines in high school cafeterias, epidemic means a rather vague 'thing which is popular and widespread', regardless of its inherent nature or context.

Personally, I would be happy for whatever words to be found which reduce the epidemic of collective punishment between societies in the Middle East.

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