Earlier this month, the German parliament voted to declare the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 massacre of Armenians a genocide. Far from being an empty gesture of insignificant rhetoric, the symbolism of this declaration—and that reflected by Turkey’s reaction to it—is urgently relevant at a time where we strive to hide from our more heinous realities by pretending they do not exist, manipulating words into functioning as our linguistic shields.
President Obama’s inability to recognize the Orlando shooting as a consequence of radical Islam is not just disappointing but deeply dangerous. If we cannot name our enemies, we have no hope of successfully defeating them—either ideologically or militarily. We are a developed country with a diverse nation. That our population is capable of, say, the merest modicum of nuance should be taken for granted. But for some reason, this president thinks we are ill-prepared for a national conversation that includes the word ‘Islam’. He believes that the use of such a word would be akin to inviting a wholesale condemnation of the religion and all who follow its creed. This linguistic lie-by-omission demonstrates a startling lack of confidence in the ability of Americans to distinguish between a religion writ large and a sector of its most extreme adherents. With such simpletons for citizens, it’s a wonder Obama feels this country is even deserving of his leadership.
In Germany today, the power of propaganda—another manipulation of language and messaging—and the horror it once helped sponsor is remembered with shame and honesty. In stark contrast to Turkey’s obfuscating messaging about the Armenian genocide, Germany has embraced the idea that sunlight is the best disinfectant. It is impossible to escape the legacy of genocide in Berlin, where, throughout the city, there are memorials and exhibits–some small and independent, others large and official–to those who perished during the Holocaust. The Stolpersteine project, a brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, boasts over 6,000 memorial stones in Berlin alone, and tens of thousands more throughout the rest of Europe. Demnig and his team install the small, square, flat bronze plaques into the streets, commemorating inhabitants who were mercilessly slaughtered by the Nazi regime.
‘Stolpersteine’ is roughly translated as ‘stumbling stones,’ and, as its name suggests, even those who do not actively choose to go to a Holocaust museum or memorial are not able to avoid stumbling upon this dark blot of human history as they walk through the cosmopolitan Berlin streets. Tourists quite literally trip over Berlin’s earnest efforts to honestly engage with its past. We cannot even honestly engage with our present.
As in Germany and Turkey, in this country, under this president, the overwhelming potency of language is harnessed for political gain. And yet we sadly find ourselves more reminiscent of Turkey’s Erdogan than of Germany’s Merkel.
“The pen is mightier than the sword” is not an empty platitude. Language is more than metaphorically powerful. It has the ability to transform a “victim” of sexual assault into a “survivor” of that same horror. Naming rights—also a function of language—have always demonstrated a sense ownership whether in God’s genesis, or in the days of slavery, or even when donors build buildings. For all of Donald Trump’s racism and sexism and the infinity of isms with which he will inevitably prove he deserves to be labeled, he understands the raw power of unfiltered language—of, not quite the truth, but the unedited sentiment. Even if he is elected, and even if he implements none of the things he’s threatened, his language alone has damaged and will continue to damage first the GOP but, more broadly, the nation. Our words matter. It’s time for our nation’s leaders and would-be leaders to speak and write with that in mind.