This is Fair Observer’s new feature offering a review of the way language is used, sometimes for devious purposes, in the news. Click here to read the previous edition.
We invite readers to join us by submitting their suggestions of words and expressions that deserve exploring, with or without original commentary. To submit a citation from the news and/or provide your own short commentary, send us an email.
March 10: Sacred Obligation
Sometimes official language and even reporting in the media hides more of the truth than it reveals. This is especially true in times of armed conflict. To highlight the gap between the official narrative and other possible interpretations of events, we have crafted an imaginary scene between two entirely fictional characters.
One of the characters is obviously familiar with a statement by US President Joe Biden made in 2021: “NATO is Article Five, and you take it as a sacred obligation.”
INT/EXT. Washington Bar — NIGHT
Two men standing at a bar. One is the journalist, Lee Matthews. The other is the State Department spokesman, Ed Costa.
LEE MATTHEWS: Thank you for agreeing to a private conversation outside of any official context.
ED COSTA: Yeah, it’ll do both of us good to have a frank conversation, for once. You know, it’s all about respecting the truth, not always an easy thing to do in our jobs. But just to be clear, none of this is on the record.
LEE MATTHEWS: Trust me. I’m just trying to get a handle on a rather complex situation. After all, I can’t always be sure that what you say officially is always the unvarnished truth.
ED COSTA: Well, we told you Putin would invade Ukraine and even announced the approximate date. We may have been off by a week or so, but it happened exactly as we predicted. This isn’t another case of Saddam’s WMD.
LEE MATTHEWS: I grant you that. And I admit it sounded incredible when you guys started insisting that you knew for sure the Russians would invade. Some of us thought it was just Putin bluffing.
ED COSTA: Come on, you didn’t trust us. Now you know we would never lie to you. And, hey, you have to hand it to our intelligence services. Now that I think of it, you owe me and the intelligence community an apology for doubting our word.
LEE MATTHEWS: Actually, if you remember correctly, what I openly doubted was when you said there would be a false flag operation to justify the invasion. That never happened.
ED COSTA: Well, it could have happened, but the result is the same. We got the invasion right.
LEE MATTHEWS: But you promised us a false flag. Instead of that, we watched Putin sitting in front of a TV camera and rattling off a litany of historical reasons explaining why he felt compelled to mount an operation of denazification.
ED COSTA: Well, all that history was fake news, wasn’t it? Fake news, false flag, what’s the difference?
LEE MATTHEWS: Well, some of the history he cited made sense, at least to the Russian people, and nobody in DC wants to acknowledge it. We in the media couldn’t follow all the details, but shouldn’t you guys have been aware of both the reasoning and the motivation it represented?
ED COSTA: We were aware. As you saw, we predicted the invasion.
LEE MATTHEWS: Actually, you guys told us that by predicting the invasion and announcing it publicly beforehand, that would prevent Putin from invading. So, you were wrong about that.
ED COSTA: Who can predict what Putin would do?
LEE MATTHEWS: I thought that’s part of the intelligence community’s job, anticipating the enemy’s reaction.
ED COSTA: Well, yeah, we thought that might happen.
LEE MATTHEWS: Given the catastrophe that is now taking place for the Ukrainian people, whose suffering is likely to continue and most likely get worse, don’t you think that strategy of trying to prevent an invasion and failing to do so was a costly mistake?
ED COSTA: It will be costly for the Russians, thanks to the measures we’re taking in the form of sanctions.
LEE MATTHEWS: But it has been very costly for the Ukrainians, on whose behalf you guys are doing all this. And it is beginning to have tragic consequences everywhere, even in the US and obviously in Europe, which is to say, the populations covered by NATO. Couldn’t you have prevented the war by taking seriously Putin’s complaints about NATO and working something out? I mean, like anything? War is a pretty serious business.
ED COSTA: NATO is sacred, as is Ukraine’s sovereignty. So, there’s some suffering. There’s a principle to defend. And how can you negotiate with a madman?
LEE MATTHEWS: If I take you literally when you say NATO is sacred, this sounds like a holy war. A lot of American experts, from the late George Kennan to John Mearsheimer today — guys you’ve read and studied — they took Putin’s reasoning about national security seriously. And they certainly didn’t view NATO as sacred.
ED COSTA: Sorry, when I said NATO was sacred, I meant it is necessary because, thanks to it, things have been pretty peaceful in Europe until Putin made his move. All its members are happy with NATO. So, we see no reason why that happiness shouldn’t be shared. Spread it as far as possible. And, as you know, Ukraine asked to share that happiness.
LEE MATTHEWS: Well, didn’t Bush push that idea before anyone in Ukraine thought of it? In any case, isn’t the whole NATO question the factor that provoked the invasion and started a war that NATO seems helpless to address?
ED COSTA: As all your colleagues in the media have been repeating — and I’ll ask you to do the same — this is an unprovoked war. Repeat after me. This is an unprovoked war.
LEE MATTHEWS: Are you saying the Russians are wrong to see the expansion of NATO and the US supplying weapons to nations that border Russia as a provocation?
ED COSTA: Of course, they’re wrong. How could a country that once allowed itself to be dominated by communists be right? NATO exists only for peace. That’s what aircraft, tanks, missiles and nuclear bombs are all about. They’re so frightening, no one would ever dare use them. Everybody knows that. What we’ve been expanding is peace, not war.
LEE MATTHEWS: Are you saying that the war currently raging in Ukraine should be seen as an example of peace?
ED COSTA: Hey, the US isn’t at war with Russia. NATO isn’t at war with Russia. We’re just helping things along, to protect the innocent. When this blows over and Russia sees how we have been able to cripple their economy, we will all be at peace again.
LEE MATTHEWS: Why then is Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy begging the US to join the war?
ED COSTA: You know these Slavic politicians. (LAUGHS) It’s probably a cultural thing. They get overexcited about nothing and hallucinate that we’re up to some devious games. They begin to imagine that we aren’t there for one simple reason: to ensure their safety and future prosperity. That’s the permanent mission of NATO and, of course, the eternal mission of our exceptional nation, the United States.
LEE MATTHEWS: So, tell me, what is the exact date the intelligence community has predicted for Biden’s victory speech on a Black Sea aircraft carrier in full military garb?
ED COSTA: Hey, we can’t predict everything.
LEE MATTHEWS: I’ll say. And I expect there are a few Ukrainians who now agree.
DISCLAIMER: This dialogue is entirely fictional. Despite some superficial similarity, the names Ed Costa and Lee Matthews are not meant to refer to real people such as Ned Price and Matt Lee.
Why Monitoring Language Is Important
Language allows people to express thoughts, theories, ideas, experiences and opinions. But even while doing so, it also serves to obscure what is essential for understanding the complex nature of reality. When people use language to hide essential meaning, it is not only because they cynically seek to prevaricate or spread misinformation. It is because they strive to tell the part or the angle of the story that correlates with their needs and interests.
In the age of social media, many of our institutions and pundits proclaim their intent to root out “misinformation.” But often, in so doing, they are literally seeking to miss information.
Is there a solution? It will never be perfect, but critical thinking begins by being attentive to two things: the full context of any issue we are trying to understand and the operation of language itself. In our schools, we are taught to read and write, but, unless we bring rhetoric back into the standard curriculum, we are never taught how the power of language to both convey and distort the truth functions. There is a largely unconscious but observable historical reason for that negligence. Teaching establishments and cultural authorities fear the power of linguistic critique may be used against their authority.
Remember, Fair Observer’s Language and the News seeks to sensitize our readers to the importance of digging deeper when assimilating the wisdom of our authorities, pundits and the media that transmit their knowledge and wisdom.
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.