Wednesday, March 23, 2016

"Terror" and Terrorism: A Linguistic Gripe

I just want to complain briefly about--as it seems to me anyway--the media's melodramatic use of the term "terror" when speaking of terrorism. As in: "Belgium reacts to terror..." or "Terror threat in U.S..."  or "Europe Faces 'Longer Period of Terrror'"...or whatever.  (Yeah, yeah...RT news barely counts...but...I'm using it anyway.)
This usage seems contrived and, well, again, I want to say melodramatic...and in a kind of calculated way. Or something. I just can't help but thing that the media (the real media...not just RT News...) is opting for melodrama, even if that might have the effect of sounding even more panicky than they normally sound.
I don't know.
It just bugs the hell out of me is what it comes down to.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This seems related to a linguistic tic of the academic left that I have long been puzzled by: things that are bad are mass nouns. The negative-mass-noun thing is a big part of what makes "radical" prose read the way it does. Nouns that are plural in regular usage are singular: "race" instead of "races", not "resistance to the American empire" but "resistance to American empire", and (of course) "privilege" instead of "privileges".

The converse happens to good things, with singular terms as plural: "history" is "histories", etc. There, the motivation is obvious - to try and presuppose relativism - but I can't figure out this mass noun thing. Is to try to presuppose that anything bad has a single, deep cause? Is this just the inheritance of new left prose habits, where "capital", a mass noun in regular usage, serves as the prototype for negative phenomena? The use of "terror", as opposed to "terrorism", by non-academic media suggests that perhaps mass nouns have general rhetorical effect of being scarier?

3:10 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

That's a really good point, A. That kind of prose is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me, and I've noticed the knee-jerk pluralization ("feminisms" is another example), but never really recognized/articulated the mass noun thing.

Wish I had some insight there... They really seem to love a certain ring... (I wonder whether "the other" is in the same general family.)

11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was thinking about this some more, trying to figure out whether there was some kind of conceptual or rhetorical work being done by the count/mass flip. The semantics of mass nouns are really fascinating, and quite neglected. Most of the usual sources have almost nothing to say about them. Even Anil Gupta's The Logic of Common Nouns says that common nouns include both mass and count nouns, but uses only count nouns in its examples. (Since Gupta is primarily concerned with fleshing out Geach's notion of type-relative numerical identity and mass noun referents are not denumurable, that is not so surprising. But it does kind of keep the book from doing what it says on the spine.) I had been thinking that maybe this was some kind of inherited characteristic from the PC crowd's beloved French. But a quick Google search turned up a comparative linguistics paper that indicates that French nouns are distinguished between count and mass too, and that most of the same nouns are are in either category.

But that same paper stated something important about mass nouns I hadn't considered: predication of a mass noun to a physical object implies predication of the same mass noun to all it parts. So, if I say that a puddle is water, I imply that the left half is water, the right is water, every possible sample teaspoonfull is water, etc. That's clearly correct, and it makes predication of a mass noun a very strong claim, since indefinite divisibility into parts gets you, Dedekind-style, an uncountably large number of objects that are water. So, it's not that the referents of mass nouns somehow do not "admit to number", its that the number of implied referents is innumerably big. After all, if mass noun referents did not admit to number, then it would not be appropriate to analyze both "A tree grows in Brooklyn" and "Water flows in Brooklyn" with the ∃, which implies that there is at least one thing that is a tree or is water. Of course, water isn't really indefinitely divisible, but we conceive of it that way in everyday life, dropping use of the mass nouns in favor of countable molecules and so forth when getting sciency.

Abstract objects don't have parts to divide in any physical sense, but there are objects to which abstracta bear part-like relations: "parts" whose state are individually necessary for the state of the "whole". Predication of an mass noun would imply predication of the same property all the way up the chain of chain of formal causation. (Sorry, I can't think of a better term.) So, if Moby Dick is literature, then then implication is that Ahab's dialogue is literature, the themes are literature, etc. Use of a mass noun in the abstract case could reflect a belief that the property which renders a thing such-and-such mass noun applies to all its formal causes as well.

So, as to why the academic left would tend to flip count nouns to mass nouns for bad things, the idea I think would be to imply that element of a situation of which the unhappy mass noun is predicated of (or, better, presupposed to have) also has that negative property, even if it appears innocent. So, if you have privilege, rather than privileges, every aspect of your life is an example of privilege, even if apparently not dependent someone else not getting it. You cannot fail to evince privilege in anything you do unless privilege is eliminated in everything you do. This is a nice, radical position, evinces the kind of defensive sputter desirable in a PC accusation, and also looks a lot like original sin.

Come to think of it, "sin" is an abstract noun, used as a count noun in everyday life, but used as a mass noun by the theologians.

10:14 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Bwahahaha that is awesome, A. The French hypothesis was a beauty...kinda sad that turned out to be false...

I've never thought a bit about mass and count nouns (beyond being very irritable about people confusing 'less' and 'fewer'...) That's super damn interesting about the implied infinite divisibility of the objects of mass nouns, and esp. the abstract objects stuff. I'm on a crash trajectory, so I've got nothing interesting to say other than "hey, cool."

(Only of the most superficial possible interest and tangential, utterly speculative relevance: Lesniewski (or one of those Poles) has a paper on existential import in which he argues that the backwards 'E' should, like the universal quantifier, be stripped of existential import. His existentially non-commissive suggested reading of 'Ex' is "for some x." (of course that reading is often used even for the orthodox interpretation of 'Ex'). What you wrote just made me wonder whether anything interesting might come of reading "for some" as "for some non-empty portion of" rather than "for one or more of" . I guess 'Ax' could also be read as "for every bit of" rather than "for every."... Not that there aren't better ways to do the logic of parts and wholes...)

Ok...I'm obviously way too tired to be talking...

I like the hypothesis in the penultimate paragraph...I'm not convinced...but it's cool. But, then, I'm pretty credulous when it comes to believing bad things about the PCs...

Ok...on an irreversible crash trajectory...

10:50 PM  

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