A History of Weaponized Language

03/26/2012 05:07 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2012

During their conquest of the Indus civilization, the avant-garde of the invading Aryan army included priests tasked with reciting, with ultimate fidelity, the "magic words" of the Vedic texts. These incantations, or mantras, if pronounced with slavish precision, were believed to aid in the victory of the advancing forces. While the effectiveness of the magic words is certainly open to debate, the victory of the Aryans, who would go on to rule the Indus valley, is not.*

This may well be the first instance of weaponized language. It is perhaps not accidental, then, that the Germans, who were on their own Aryan quest, would re-discover the malevolent wonders of magic words. The propaganda of the Nazis was rife with both appropriations (from biology, evolutionary theory, pathology) and clever neologisms, carefully crafted to become killing memes. Besides the well-known focus on the demonization of the Jews, the new Nazi vocabulary included terms such as "worthless eaters" and "life unworthy of life." The descriptive language of disease was reapplied to various groups of humans, identifying them as the vectors for biological contamination. These appellations served to not only to identify the "threats of infection," but also to isolate and localize them. The fear of being "infected" moved through the German population like a mass shiver of disgust. Words became actions, and when the proto-typical gas chambers were built in the basements of the asylums and orphanages, the clouds of smoke rising from the Action T4 "euthanasia centers" were probably met with a deep-seated feeling of relief. Otherness, demonized, had been exorcised.

This weaponization of language was not created in some especially German vacuum, however. In fact, while Germany was still mired in the chaos of the crushing debt imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, American scientists had been hard at work developing their own language of destruction.

The schoolyard (or internet message forum) taunts of "moron" "imbecile" or "idiot" are inextricably linked to their bloody birth in the American eugenic think tanks. Material and intellectual support were provided by the top universities, science journals, and thinkers of the first part of the 20th century -- and was substantially bankrolled by the fortunes of corporate philanthropists including Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Harriman. Obsessed with the creation of a purified race, eugenics sought to create a better man through breeding the "best" and reducing the rest -- through any means necessary. As the Germans were licking their war-wounds, America was waging a full-frontal assault on all those believed to be biologically inferior. The methodology was wrapped in all the trappings of science. The Apollonian quest to root out the chaos was focused on the perceived biological founts of disorder - be they racial, cultural, or transgressive - which were attacked as vectors of biological decay or "race suicide." So -- the epileptic, the criminal, the promiscuous, and the Catholic immigrant were grouped together as threats to the hegemony of the Protestant ruling class, which was itself inflamed by the new Social Gospel (more on this in a later post.) All others were to be eliminated - either through contraception, sterilization, immigration reform, or segregation.

This quest for purification, based as it was in the pretense of science, required tools -- specifically, classification and categorization methods to identify the "carriers" of biological inferiority. One of the prime tools devised was the IQ test. Rooted in the intelligence tests of France's Alfred Binet (who pointedly warned about the misuse of his tests and rejected the idea that intelligence was fixed) the Eugenic Establishment developed and refined the test into a weapon of classification. The new "IQ" points were devised as a method of classifying and grouping those who were to be systematically eliminated. The range of intelligences fell across a scale, with new words invented or appropriated to describe the ranges. 100 was set as the mean. Those scoring below 20 were classified as "idiots." Those between 20-49 were "imbeciles." 50-69 were "morons." 70-80 were "on the borderline." 80-90 were merely "dull."

The new intelligence tests were beta-tested at Ellis Island, and mass-tested on WWI soldiers (where, famously, any idea of requiring high IQ for Army entrance was summarily abandoned.) IQ was a number, an empirical classification, which could now be used as a metric to identify the outsider. Of course, those who scored low on the IQ tests conveniently mirrored the groups who were most feared as being agents of biological terrorism and infiltration, and the penalties were not limited to anxious academic analysis. Being classified a "moron" was a prescription for elimination. Some 60,000 Americans, mostly women, were sterilized following the dictates of eugenic classification of undesirability. The "feebleminded" confined to what were essentially internment camps were allowed to die from TB- tainted milk. Suspect newborns were allowed to bleed-out from unsutured umbilical cords. The language of eugenics, the use of "intelligence classification" as not only a pejorative, but literally as a criteria to judge who should live or die -- lead to the death or deprivation of the basic standards of life, liberty, and happiness for untold thousands in America -- and millions abroad.

What of legacy? Did the violent effects of eugenically-charged language die with the discrediting of the eugenics movement, or do they continue, protected by the shroud of historical forgetfulness? There are hints. In our own super-heated political climate, common political epithets include "wingnut" and "libtard." Both are offensive strategies to delegitmize, disenfranchise, and dehumanize "others" by invoking the specter of mental illness or disability -- as if either were a priori condition for disenfranchisement or silencing. The weaponization of eugenic language was meant to discourage debate and deflate empathy for otherness, and to reinforce the status quo. By applying scientific-sounding terms to problems best understood and rectified through the compassionate language of the human heart, eugenics attempted a scientific solution that was skewed by the prejudices of the testers. Eugenics invented a new language of hate, the legacy of which is still with us today.

The ancient Aryans believed that words had power. Modern linguistics has done much to deny the notion that words possesses any intrinsic meaning, yet the question remains: what of words especially designed to kill, to maim, to segregate, and to destroy?

Is it possible to extract a word from its history, especially if that history, if the birth of the word, was first written in blood?

* Or is it? Some claim that the commonly accepted history of the Aryan Invasion itself is biased toward a divide and conquer strategy that bolstered the aims of British colonialism in India -appropriately enough through a misuse of linguistics.

Justin Strawhand is a writer, director, and producer. His most recent documentary film War Against the Weak details the rise and fall of the American eugenics movement and its direct impact on the Holocaust.