Militant — a new silencing word

Misusing language to crush resistance

I read an article recently condemning militant environmentalists and I must confess that, jaded though I am, I still let my eye glide over it and go on another half paragraph before I pulled myself up.

Militant environmentalists? I’ve been around a long time now and yet here I am, falling for this cheap verbal trick, where a writer invites me to accept without question that being militant is a bad thing. And I do. For a second or two, I do exactly that before I catch myself on, because that’s how insidious such weasel-words are.

It’s much the same sort of trick as calling a government we don’t like a regime.  It’s why we don’t use the word terrorists to describe the 150 armed men who are currently occupying federal buildings in Oregon while threatening to kill policemen and wishing to die for their cause.

What does militant mean? I asked myself. What exactly is a militant environmentalist? How passionate should we be about protecting the place where we live, this planet on which we all depend? Who in their right mind would not be militant in defence of this piece of spinning rock, the only place where we and our children can survive?

What environmentalist worth their salt would not be militant in defence of our planet?

Well, you see, that’s how weasel-words work.

Of all dictionary definitions, Wikipedia says it best.

A weasel word (also, anonymous authority) is an informal term for words and phrases aimed at creating an impression that a specific and/or meaningful statement has been made, when only a vague or ambiguous claim has been communicated, enabling the specific meaning to be denied if the statement is challenged.

People who would restrict your freedom all seem to share this characteristic: if you refuse to let them walk all over you, they are the victims and you are the oppressive militant.

We saw it most recently with those who opposed marriage equality in Ireland, where the anti side ludicrously tried to portray themselves as the oppressed, even though they were the ones trying to prevent others from being free. Luckily, the Irish people saw through their nonsense, but there it was all the same. The oppressor will always cast the oppressed in the role of the aggressor.

It has taken time for militant to achieve its weasel status but it’s firmly established now as the pejorative of choice by an assortment of oppressive movements, all of which use it to belittle those who dare to resist them, and so it has been, throughout recent history.

Remember those militant feminists? Women demanding the same rights as their brothers, their fathers and their husbands. The same rights as the men they worked with. Militant feminists.

Militant homosexuals turned out to be ordinary people who refused to be treated as third-class citizens. People who demanded the same rights as everyone else. Militant homosexuals.

Militant atheists. People who don’t want priests controlling their medical treatment or their children’s education. People who wish to lead  their lives according to their own wishes. Militant atheists.

How casually this word has been diverted from its normal duties describing violent people and misapplied to those who assert their rights as human beings.

When you say that you are a feminist and demand respect, you are not a militant.

When you say that you are homosexual and demand respect, you are not a militant.

When you say that you are a Muslim and demand respect, you are not a militant.

When you say that you are a Jew and demand respect, you are not a militant.

When you say that you are an African and demand respect, you are not a militant.

When you defend the environment and demand respect, you are not a militant.


But if you try to deny any of them their rights as a human being then I have bad news for you.

You are the militant.



4 thoughts on “Militant — a new silencing word

  1. Another new entry in recent months has been “populist”. I’d watch that one as well.

  2. During the years of my misguided English youth, I used to associate with a group known as “Militant Tendency”. To be honest, they were a rather dull lot of Trotskyites waiting for the revolution in the way that Christian fundamentalists await the Second Coming, but they, in their own odd way, would probably be pleased that the adjective they adopted for themselves is now used as an implication that something is a threat to the fabric of society and a danger to the very foundations of Western civilization.

    Of course, the Church of Ireland have always been militant. The original Book of Common Prayer service of Holy Communion has a prayer for “the whole state of Christ’s Church militant here in earth.”

  3. MILITANT is a dangerous word.

    In English, yes it can mean aggressive or violent

    The same word in French is used to describe any kind of activist or supporter or anyone who acts for a cause non-violently.

    Combative and aggressive in support of a political or social cause, and typically favoring extreme, violent, or confrontational methods.

    Adhérent d’une organisation politique, syndicale, sociale, qui participe activement à la vie de cette organisation.
    Personne qui agit pour une cause : Les militants de la paix.

    So at a perfectly peaceful (although maybe loud) meeting of any political leader or cause, people could be described as MILITANTS.

    I wonder if and how it is used in other languages.

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