On Our Terminology

By Eric Shiraev

Image:Wikimedia Commons/John Tenniel

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less….” One memorable line from Alice in Wonderlandand two others that would follow have prompted these remarks on the meaning of few terms that we, as a research team, have been using for some time now.

When we began our endeavor several years ago, we were focusing—distinctively and persistently—on the most recognizable, the most central, and the catchiest term of our young project: character assassination. In rather a confident tone, with no conscious reference to Humpty Dumpty,we thought that after we decide on the meaning of these two words in the term, and after we choose what to attribute to character assassination and what not, we should move on and then limit or even end the discussion of the definition. However, a robust dialog about different meanings of this term continued, as it should have. “The question is,” saidAlice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Indeed, character assassination, as we realized, sometimes meant different things to different people who joined us to research into character assassination.

First, we obviously addressed some concerns about the term itself and its reference to a violent, vicious, and immoral act. As Martijn Icks wrote in one of his earlier essays posted here, we took these concerns seriously. Some of our reviewers even suggested getting rid of the term character assassination altogether. As a replacement, “reputation destruction” or some other words were offered. We have rejected these suggestions. The term, character assassination, is strong, sharp, and emotional. Yet, as Martijn Icks wrote, that despite its perceived inaccuracies, it describes the concept in a way most people should instantly recognize and understand. Moreover, it also requires knowledge and critical thinking from the listener or reader. This has exactly been one of our educational and research goals in this project: to spark someone’s interest to our subject, to awake this person’s imagination, and motivate her or him to read, think, and act.

Next, we were asked many times whether character assassination can refer to professional, gender, ethnic, and other groups. Almost form the start, we decided to focus in our research and publications on the individual, and not on groups. Of course, small and large clusters of people—their reputation and even personality traits that they can seemingly share—can be targeted and attacked in different times by various means. Social stereotyping, ethnic and religious prejudice are examples of such acts.  Although we pay attention to social stigma and many forms of stereotyping, we still tend to investigate and apply our knowledge in most cases to study individual attacks.

On earlier stages of our project, we often use the term “victim” describing individuals targeted in character attacks. We reconsidered this term later. Indeed, there are clear victims of character attacks, those people who suffer emotionally and in a variety of other ways. However, other people’s reputation can be a target of legitimate accusations. If a rapist’s or a murderer’s character is under scrutiny, does this person have to be called a victim? We humbly understand, the art and science of semantics and believe that the term, “target” is more appropriate in our studies than “victim”. In other words, every victim of character attacks has been a target, yet not every target is a victim in a moral sense of this term.

And one more remark about translation. Most of publications on character assassination have been in English. However, correct translation from English to other languages can be an issue and it needs to be addressed. For example, we realize that “character assassination” or “character attack” are not easy to accurately translate in some languages (we struggled, for example, to choose the most appropriate Russian translation). If you are bilingual or multilingual, we encourage you to tell us about possibilities of different translations of the term, character assassination. Send us your comments and versions. We will discuss them together.

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which isto be master—that’s all.” We do not claim any kind of “research appropriation” of scientific terminology. We are simply asking questions and looking for answers. Good answers.

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