Misuse of terminology weakens word’s meaning

Lisa Weidman, assistant professor of Mass Communication, chats with audience members during her co-lecture with David Sumner, associated Professor of English and Environmental studies, titled "Eco-terrorism or Eco-tage: An Argument for the Proper Frame." Joel Ray/Senior photographer

Lisa Weidman, assistant professor of Mass Communication, chats with audience members during her co-lecture with David Sumner, associated Professor of English and Environmental studies, titled “Eco-terrorism or Eco-tage: An Argument for the Proper Frame.”
Joel Ray/Senior photographer

Eco-terrorism is a word that is overused and often misused. David Sumner, associate professor of English and environmental studies, and Lisa Weidman, assistant professor of mass communication, shared their research and knowledge of the term with faculty and students in their presentation “Eco-terrorism or Eco-tage: An Argument for the Proper Frame” on Sept. 12 in Riley 201.
The presentation was not so much about what eco-terrorism actually is, but rather focused on the power of the terminology itself. Sumner claimed that the word is widely
and carelessly used.
“Most who use the term do so uncritically,” he said. “The terms we choose matter.”
Sumner and Weidman began by drawing a distinction between the different types of terrorism. This included domestic terrorism and the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Radical environmental activists sometimes use arson and other destructive means to get their messages across, and such acts have been classified as eco-terrorism.
Over time, other terms such as “cyber terrorist,” “artistic terrorist” and even “psychological terrorist” have been invented. But the professors argue that this dilutes the true meaning of the word terrorism and that can be
dangerous.
The question they ask is, “Is terrorism an accurate description of destruction of property?”
Their answer is if acts harm property, but are careful not to harm people, it can’t be called terrorism. Arson, destruction and sabotage are better terms for the actions that people associate with eco-terrorism.
“I will be honest,” Sumner said, “I do not agree with the tactics of radical environmentalists. I think it sets the environmental movement back.” However, both of the professors agree it is not technically terrorism.
According to Sumner and Weidman’s research, there have, in fact, been no actual claims of radical environmental movements that hurt people.
So how did the term gain so much momentum?
The two began their research when they attended an event that sparked their interests in the words eco-terrorism and eco-tage. Weidman and Sumner looked at newspapers to see the frequency with which reporters used the words, and with what tone it was used. They analyzed 594 total articles from 1999 to 2009 that used the words eco-terrorism, eco-sabotage, eco-arson and other variations. They found that 84 percent of authors used it and 15 percent of authors’ sources used it.
The way authors used the word was much more often accepting than distancing. This means that journalists and reporters recognize the meaning of the word and agree with it. However, the professors’ hunch was right. The overuse of the word has decreased the potency of the meaning.
This led to the professors’ argument that journalists need to think of the implications that a term can carry before using it. They need to choose their words thoughtfully and carefully.
A trend can be seen of certain interest groups “taking back” a word that is misunderstood or meant for something else and redefining it.
“This takes the teeth out of a word when you really want to use it,” Weidman said.
Lisa Weidman, assistant professor of mass communication, chats with audience members during her co-lecture with David Sumner, associate professor of English and environmental studies, titled “Eco-terrorism or Eco-tage: An Argument for the Proper Frame” on Sept. 12. Weidman and Sumner discussed the careless usage of the word eco-terrorism in today’s society.

Kelsey Sutton
Managing editor

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