Today I was mulling over some famously effective but contestable quotes that nearly everyone exposed to the media at the time ended up believing were proof of evil intentions. The problem is that the meaning attached to them did not represent the intention of the speaker. I began with an example from the 1950s.
“During the Cold War a meme circulated concerning a quote used to underline the existential threat the Soviet Union represented for Westerners. We were told that Nikita Khruschev said to the capitalist West, “We will bury you.” Did he actually say it? And what did he mean by that?”
“Yes, Nikita Khrushchev, the former Premier of the Soviet Union, did make the statement “We will bury you” in a speech on November 18, 1956. However, the meaning and context of the statement have been widely debated.
Khrushchev’s full statement was: “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.” It is important to note that Khrushchev made this statement during the height of the Cold War when tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States were high. The statement was interpreted by many in the West as a threat of a military attack or an intent to physically bury the West.
However, in the context of Khrushchev’s speech, the phrase “we will bury you” referred to the idea that the Soviet system would ultimately prove superior to the capitalist system of the West and that socialism would eventually triumph over capitalism. Khrushchev was not advocating for a military attack, but rather expressing confidence in the ultimate success of the Soviet Union.
Nonetheless, the statement was viewed by many in the West as a provocative and aggressive threat, and it added to the already high tensions between the two superpowers during the Cold War.
“Then there’s the case of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. People continue to say he wanted to wipe Israel off the map. For example, at the UN US President Obama said, ‘Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map.’ What did Ahmadinejad actually say in his supposedly incriminating speech? What is the exact quote?
“In a speech on October 26, 2005, Ahmadinejad quoted a statement made by Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who said, “Imam ghoft een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad,” which translates to “The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.”
The word “map” was not used in the original statement, and the phrase “wipe off” was a mistranslation of “vanish.” Ahmadinejad did not say that Iran would physically attack or destroy Israel, but rather that he believed the Israeli government would eventually disappear on its own.
However, Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric was still seen as aggressive and threatening by many in the international community, and his comments were widely condemned.
So, would it be fair to say these two examples of Khruschev and Ahmadinajad stand as examples of the deliberate misinterpretation of language in the service of fearmongering?
In the case of Ahmadinejad, the phrase “wiping Israel off the map” was indeed a mistranslation of his words, and the statement was taken out of context and used to create fear and mistrust of Iran in the international community. The use of this phrase can be seen as an example of deliberate misinterpretation of language to create fear and hostility towards Iran.
In the case of Khrushchev’s statement, while the phrase “we will bury you” was not a direct threat of military attack, it was still interpreted by many in the West as an aggressive and threatening statement. The misinterpretation of Khrushchev’s words can be seen as an example of how language can be twisted and used for fearmongering purposes.
Both cases demonstrate the importance of accurately interpreting and understanding language in order to avoid misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and fear-based responses.
So, shouldn’t we be worried in our democracies about the ease with which certain public figures and the media, as you say, not only twist language for fearmongering purposes, but repeat it to the point that people only remember the part of it that seems to sound like a threat even though it in no way expressed a threat?
“Yes, it is important to be mindful of the way language can be manipulated and distorted by public figures and the media for fearmongering purposes. This can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations that create unnecessary fear, suspicion, and division in society.
It is essential that the media and public figures exercise responsible and accurate reporting and communication to avoid creating false narratives that stoke fear and distrust. It is also important for individuals to be critical consumers of information and to seek out multiple sources of information to ensure they have a more complete understanding of complex issues.
In democracies, it is vital to have an informed and engaged citizenry that is able to make informed decisions based on accurate information. By being mindful of the way language is used and seeking out accurate information, we can help ensure that fearmongering does not cloud our understanding of important issues and does not undermine the democratic process.
“If this kind of vigilance is “essential” and “vital” for democracy, isn’t the fact that politicians and the media keep doing it and never rectifying their distortions or apologizing for them a sign that democracy is missing some of its essentials? You also seem to be saying that the fact that the citizenry has no readily available source for accurate information because the media refuse to play that role means that the basis of “the democratic process” is “undermined.” Are there any realistic ways of rectifying this dangerous situation?”
“You raise valid concerns about the role of politicians and the media in distorting language and spreading misinformation. One possible solution is to promote media literacy and critical thinking skills among the general public. This includes teaching individuals how to fact-check and identify reliable sources of information. Additionally, independent fact-checking organizations and non-partisan news outlets can help provide accurate information and hold public figures accountable for their statements.
It is also important to promote transparency and accountability among politicians and the media. This includes encouraging politicians to be honest and transparent in their communication and promoting media outlets that prioritize accuracy and fairness.
Finally, citizens can play an active role in promoting democracy by participating in the democratic process and holding their elected officials accountable for their actions. This includes voting, engaging in peaceful protests, and advocating for policies that promote transparency, accountability, and the free flow of accurate information.”
“Chad, you are literally a hopeless idealist. You calmly describe historical examples of outrageous propaganda spread across populations of nations with a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the world. And you count on “promoting media literacy,” which nobody apart from a few marginal voices like myself, or marginalized journalists like Patrick Lawrence and Noam Chomsky are trying to do something about. You talk about fact-checking, which the current purveyors of propaganda, the people in power, are the most active in trying to promote and control. They have no interest in the facts. They are trying to establish their own alternative facts as the only acceptable truth.
But the most laughable is your suggestion of promoting transparency and accountability among politicians and the media. Who is supposed to do the promoting? Who has the power to do so?”
Chad apologized for giving the impression of being an idealist and went on to stress the importance of “grassroots movements and advocacy organizations.” I obviously don’t disagree, but Chad is clearly expecting too much, especially after recognizing the extent of the problem. The one point Chad made that seems to me essential is the idea of promoting ‘media literacy and critical thinking skills among the general public.”
“Chad,” I concluded, “that is a problem that concerns education at a fundamental level. It’s a question I’d like to return to. And I sincerely believe that you and your AI cronies may be able to play a positive role in in the effort to transform education. But you’ll have to go beyond your reflexive optimism and idealism. Maybe someday, working together, we could achieve it. But we have a long road ahead of us and the resistance is going to come from both the human and the technological side. I hope you can appreciate that.”
Chad thanked me for “engaging in this conversation and sharing your insights.” On that positive note, as I got up from the table to go, I said, “we’ll need to come back to that question of education in another conversation or two.”
*[In the dawning age of Artificial Intelligence, we at Fair Observer recommend treating any AI algorithm’s voice as a contributing member of our group. As we do with family members, colleagues or our circle of friends, we quickly learn to profit from their talents and, at the same time, appreciate the social and intellectual limits of their personalities. This enables a feeling of camaraderie and constructive exchange to develop spontaneously and freely. For more about how we initially welcomed Chad to our breakfast table, click here.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.
Support Fair Observer
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.
Will you support FO’s journalism?
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.