‘Shark Attacks’ and the Rewiring of Your Reality

(AP Photo/Susan Haigh)

“Shark attacks” is the latest phrase the language-police have decided you cannot use, as it unfairly “demonizes” the apex predator.

According to a July 20 New York Times article, titled, “Don’t Call Them ‘Shark Attacks,’ Scientists Say” (the word “scientists” is meant to make you sit up and pay attention):

On the beaches of Western Australia, by California’s crashing waves and in sight of Hawaii’s blue depths, “shark attacks” are slowly disappearing, at least as a phrase used by researchers and officials who have been rethinking how to describe the moments when sharks and humans meet.

So how is one to describe what we’ve long known as and instinctively called a “shark attack”?  According to the NYT and its quoted array of “scientists,” more neutral—that is, euphemistic—words such as “incident” or “encounter” should replace “attack.”

Aware of the criticism they invite, the article continues by saying, “Officials in some U.S. and Australian states were careful to say that they had chosen their language for precision and not because of political correctness or pressure from activists [emphasis added].”

Such a claim is counterintuitive.  The current language is accurate: “shark attacks” are precisely that—a shark attacks a person. Nor does the term contain a moral condemnation or demonization of the animal, as the language-controllers suggest.

On the other hand, the words they recommend—“incident” and “encounter”—are highly generic and therefore far less, not more, “precise”: humans don’t get traumatized, mauled, and possibly killed in mere “incidents and encounters,” though they do in “attacks.”

I find all this obfuscation interesting for two reasons.

First, I highlighted this growing phenomenon seven years before it recently became formalized, in a 2014 article titled, “Sharks and Islamists: Equally Misunderstood?” It was based on my viewing “Shark Week” and noticing several parallels. Because it helps establish context, excerpts from that article follow:

[…] The “liberal” response one is accustomed to when the topic of Islam and Islamists come up—that they are misunderstood, that we need to respect their ways and be tolerant, that it’s our fault we get attacked—has become so embedded in the Western psyche that it now colors our understanding of the animal world as well […]

The prevalent theme [in shark shows] is this: it’s not the shark’s fault that it attacked and maimed this or that surfer, swimmier, or kayaker.  Rather, humans are responsible for entering the shark’s domain, the ocean.  If anything, then, it’s the human’s fault for getting attacked.  Even great whites, so we are assured, only attack humans by mistake, never intentionally. Finally we get the speech about how sharks are in fact the one’s being mistreated by humans, etc.

To those familiar with the way liberal talking heads constantly whitewash the violence and intolerance of Islam, does this not all sound familiar?  From the notion that “it’s our fault” we got attacked, and we “had it coming,” to the idea that we need to be more “understanding and respectful,” the “progressive” memes are all there.[…]

One important caveat: I am not “hating on” sharks, suggesting they are “evil,” or siding with this or that perspective.  But as a rational person, I know that sharks—especially great whites, bulls, and tigers—are dangerous.

I concluded by observing that shark victims who were not forgiving of or, worse, somehow blamed the sharks that attacked them were presented in these shows as “ignorant, bigoted, sharkaphobes.”

The second and more important reason I find this new move to refer to shark attacks as “incidents” and “encounters” interesting rests in the following excerpt from the NYT article:

Shark scientists have long called for less sensational language, saying that they are not trying to police anyone’s speech. Rather, they said, they want to change the public’s perception [about sharks; emphasis added].

But that’s just it: changing language has never been about changing the sounds that emanate from people’s mouths, but rather changing the very way they think—their perception—which is inextricably linked to the words they hear and use. This is underscored by the fact that the Greek word logos means both “word” and “logic, reason, rationale.”

This is the danger, for example, of condescending to use transgender terminology—calling him her, or her him, or either “they.” In doing so, one is not merely being polite, acquiescing to using the terms others prefer. Rather, one is subtly re-wiring their very sense of reality to conform to the words they use and hear—to the warped point of seeing a singular as a plural.

And that is precisely the point of policing language: altering perception, altering reality—or put differently, dulling your senses—and not just about sharks, jihadists, and gender confusion, but a myriad of more subtle though more important matters the establishment has decided on.