Monday, February 04, 2019

What Did People Say Before 'Weaponize" Came Into Common Usage For Everything?


"The N.Y. Times' Maggie Haberman tweeted: 'A White House aide is weaponizing his schedules, which says a lot about how people in the White House feel about the man they work for.'"  (From Axios)
The overuse of the word 'weaponize' has been on my radar for a while, so when I saw this today, I jumped into action.   When did this word move from a military/war context to an everyday context?  What does it mean?  How does it affect us?  I'm afraid I'm not going to answer all those questions to people's (or my) satisfaction, but think of this is notes on a concept.

From a 2016 piece on Slate:
"'We should first put weaponize in broader context. The word is on the linguistic battlefront of a larger cultural fight—a fight that’s easy to forget as we retreat to the political corners and sound off in the echo chambers of our digitally fragmented, ideologically segregated lives. We can see this fight waged between #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter, between transgender bathroom access and “Back in my day, boys were boys.” We see it between banning Native American headgear in Yale Halloween costumes and Donald Trump’s epithet of “Pocahontas” for Elizabethan Warren. Brawling out on the turf of America’s changing demography and economy, weaponize is at the center of this fight between microaggressions and dog whistles, between trigger warnings and P.C. backlash, between the collective sacrifices required of pluralism and the conservatism of privilege, where nuance, complexity, and civil engagement are getting kicked in the ribs. As one tweeter epitomizes the conflict with painful irony: “‘The word “racist” was created SPECIFICALLY to trigger shame & guilt in WHITE people. It is a weaponized word.” Yes, we’ve weaponized weaponize."

This 2017 piece in the Guardian puts it in the context of making everything part of a war and military metaphors.

"In our embattled age, it seems everything can be turned into a weapon. The Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, has frequently accused Nicola Sturgeon of “weaponising Brexit” to break up the union. Donald Trump’s “loose talk about Muslims”, the Washington Post reported, was “weaponised” in the courtroom battles over his travel ban. The Greenham Common protesters, Suzanne Moore wrote in this newspaper the other day, “weaponised traditional notions of femininity”. A recent New Yorker article on the jurisprudence of sexual questions was entitled Weaponising the Past. Ed Miliband, it was reported back in 2015, even planned to “weaponise the NHS” in the general election, a characteristically tin-eared piece of forlorn machismo. Other things that may be weaponised, according to the internet, include autism, Twitter, campus safe spaces, memes and the humble lentil."
The Guardian piece asks what the impact of this use of military terminology on everyday things is:

The psychic effect of such omnipresent warspeak may not be completely wholesome. It could, for example, subtly help to persuade us that when an actual war breaks out, it’s just business as usual. Especially since war itself is now routinely described by its practitioners in terms as bland, bureaucratic and bloodless as possible: military operations are “surgical” affairs employing “delivery systems” to “remove” dictators or “neutralise” high-value “targets”, even as they routinely blow up wedding parties or hospitals.  

The best answer to the title question I can come up with is:  politicize.  I suspect its usage was, at least at first, a way to defuse an opponent's argument by saying it was a partisan (non-neutral or objective) attack.  And that soon came to be replaced by the more literal term 'weaponize'.

So what does politicize mean?  From Mikael Mattlin's book Politicized Society:
The root word ‘politicize’ means to render political or to give a political character to, make something or someone political, or more involved in or aware of political matters. It can also mean to act the politician or to discourse on or engage in politics. With regard to people, ‘politicized’ then refers to being interested and involved in politics, being politically motivated or adept in the ways of the politician, while ‘politicizing’ refers to talking politics or the action or process of rendering something political.
In the English language, the term has almost from the start had something of the character of an accusation or a defence against accusations.4 
Mattlin tries to put this into context.
"At the core of this study is a phenomenon that can be called structural politicization. The phenomenon refers to a situation where the threshold for political conflict is low, there is a strong polarization of political views and an intolerance of different political opinions, political conflicts tend to have a zero-sum logic ending in a standoff and stalemate, and political issues spread outside the formal political institutions to intrude on numerous areas of life."
While Mattlin uses Taiwan as his case study, he argues this is true for everywhere else.

But, in the 1960s the term "everything is political" came into widespread use.  Politics, is, after all, the fight for power.  In a society where power is concentrated and the dominant group controls the definitions of what is good and bad, raising questions about those societal definitions is political.  For women to question their role as homemakers and baby makers was very political.  And it still is political when women (and their male supporters) fight against sexual harassment and abuse or unequal pay.  For blacks to challenge their second class citizenship was political.   Only in a society where power is relatively evenly distributed, and there are non-confrontational ways to raise questions, can challenges to the status quo be non-political.  Instead, people would think about what was raised and whether the existing practices are in conflict with our stated values, and if so, how can we make changes to be more consistent.

Instead, in today's United States, to say that 'black lives matter' is interpreted as saying 'white lives don't matter.'  Talking about unequal distribution of wealth brings charges of class warfare or socialism  - those terms being used as epithets, not well defined forms of economic structures.

If my examples seem to lean left, I think it's because the right has been in power in Congress since 2010 and added the White House in 2016.   It's because Republicans have 'weaponized' terms and fears since the Reagan era.  Roger Ailes was the best known creator and practitioner of this.




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