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Language Passed Along

Reader comment on item: The Problem with Middle East Studies

Submitted by James S. Oppenheim (United States), Jul 14, 2008 at 04:55

We know the first-grader's drill: whisper a simple statement to student "A" and have him whisper the same to student "B" who in turn passes it along to "C" and so on. All know what's going to happen to that signal. The same in the ears of scholars may enjoy a more observed, open, and stringent retelling, but the decay of original meaning and accretion of new may be as predictable a process.

Dr. Sadowski, having read a suitably pessemistic statement and one symbolic enough for recall, installed the same in a most dear, fearful, underlying, and overarching thesis: Islamic states are doomed to fail as peaceful and democratic entities. The statement of fact, "Muslim countries have the most terrorists and the fewest democracies in the world," became through Dr. Sadowski's filter a statement of principle: "Muslim countries [not only] have the most terrorists and the fewest democracies in the world, but that they always will."

The stance taken to explain that initial uptake and alteration started with the personal interest in one's own words, a special interest when those words and the personality conveyed through them have influence, and it produced two possible explanations: interest in discrediting the messenger (whose statement was merely factual) or bias in reading, which I take to mean political bias intent on spinning all facts to its own purpose. There is another possibility, related but different: whatever the signal sent, reception in the listener has a structure--true, a bias, but not a political one--founded in less articulated and deeply imbedded language metonymy and related pyschology.

A political bias might find an uncomfortable statement aggressive and disparaging and grasp it accordingly: throw that spear back! A bias in reception itself, one where the thing said pales in comparison to the thing heard--may deal with more difficult material, including multiple possible truths about what has been stated.


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