The Locker Room

Mastering the subleties of language

Posted by John Hood at 08:11 AM

I thought Locker Room readers might enjoy this telling little story about the nature of political debate on campus.

Last week, I visited UNC-Chapel Hill to speak to a class studying the use of blogging and the Internet to build communities, including political ones. Naturally, I gave them the full spread on the various branches of the JLF’s web family, including Carolina Journal Online, the main JLF site, the Locker Room, the JLF-Charlotte page, our special sites devoted to education and local government, our NC at War site, and the affiliated site for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

The students were impressed, by the way, and had great questions. Prompted a lot of thinking on my part, too.

But the story involves the walk to the class. As my host, the very cool Paul Jones, led the way, we encountered two professors walking the other way. Paul introduced them — Carl Enst of UNC-CH and Bruce Lawrence of Duke — as two of the nation’s leading scholars of Arabic and Islam. I was glad to meet them, at first, but then Lawrence immediately — and I mean with scant cordiality or introduction — launched into a tirade about how President Bush was a liar. Case in point, he offered, was that Bush claimed the attacks on U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq was the work of “insurgents” but it was really the work of “dissidents.” That is, this esteemed professor lectured that the word “insurgent” means foreign fighters and people from outside Iraq, while the resistance was really being waged by Iraqis who dislike the coalition presence, hate the U.S., etc. Thus Bush was a liar.

Not having the time or inclination to debate this, I simply informed him that his definitions weren’t correct. An insurgency certainly can be generated from within, indeed the term usually connotes a domestic insurgency rather than infiltration from elsewhere, I said. And the term “dissidents” doesn’t really work to describe terrorist bombers, for what should be obvious reasons — it fails to distinguish peaceful protests from blowing up children on a bus.

"You don’t know what you’re talking about,” the excitable fellow retorted. ”I’ve been talking to three Marines who served there, and they tell me it is the work of dissidents, not insurgents from outside.”

“Consult a dictionary,” I said, losing my good humor and starting to get annoyed. What a silly argument. And this was a respected scholar?

“I speak several languages,” Lawrence snootily replied. He then began to say that I should pay more attention to “Tom” Hobbes than John Locke, as if he was chatting about his cousin, which in philosophical terms may well be true.

Paul and I walked away. The prof was still sputtering. I regretted later that I didn’t close with, “You’d be better off if one of the languages you had mastered was English.”

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