The Power of Words in History: Iran, Energy, and the Future
Feb 18, 2011

The Power of Words in History: Iran, Energy, and the Future

We can measure sociopolitical changes and the evolution of the public consciousness towards certain matters by looking at the words that are used a proxy for the underlying sentiments. However, it also goes the other way arround. Through popularizing specific choices of words and entering them into the public consciousness, sociopolitical consequences can result. The history of Iran provides several telling moments where a narrow group of leaders introduced series of words into the public consciousness that significantly changed the sociopolitical realities. We then return to look at our present society and the shifts in rhetoric that can occur.

The 1905-11 Persian Constitutional Revolution introduced in Iran for the first time a rudimentary democratic system with a Parliament that would last until the coup by Reza Shah in the 20's. Ali Dehkhoda and his disciples in the reform movement largely managed to popularize many of the key concepts of the 20th century: demokrasi, aristokrasi, oligarki, fudalism, kapitalism, sosyalism, imperialism, bourgeoisie and modern concepts of left and right (1). These words, or at least their obvious English equivalents (Iran was heavily influenced by the British Empire at the time) represent the sociopolitical changes that were occuring during the constitutional revolution that would turn out to frame the discussion of much of the rest of the century. While undoubtably the concepts behind the words are more important than the words in and of themselves, awareness of the words drives awareness of the concepts.

After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, there occured anouther sharp transition in the political rhetoric. While in the early decades, words such as imperialism, jehad, martyrdom, roots, revolution, Western intoxication, clergy and fighter had been dominant, after the rise of the relatively secular and liberal Khatami in 1997 the "key terms in the public discourse" became: demokrasi, pluralism, moderniyat, liberty, equality, civil society, human rights, political participation, dialogue and the entirely new concept of citizenship. Again, we see the rise of these words in the public consciousness simultaneously representing and enforcing genuine shifts in the political sphere, with the reformers making enormous electorial gains for instance.

I have previously talked about the assymetry in public awareness of Global Warming versus Peak Oil where the former is very prominant in the public discourse but the latter is not. It is perhaps difficult to delineate with any precision the difference between the relative prominence of the concepts and the relative prominence of the words, but given how both concepts are ones where the overwhelming majority must simply defer their beliefs over the veracity and significance of these threats to an appeal to authority (scientific authority, in these cases), I feel the relative repetition of the words in the public discorse dominates the assymetry. We experience references to Global Warming ubiquitously which perpetuates our cogniziance of the concept.

Nowhere is this more aparant than in election campaigns, where polititians attempt to frame the debate arround a fairly narrow choice of words. Sloganeering such as "Change  we can believe in" almost by its very nature emphasize these positive words without an emphasize on expanding the actual concepts underlying them, namely, what change specifically? However, the use of key words absolutely has the power to fundamentally change the political landscape.

Looking forward, the lesson we can learn is that there is value in simply perpetuating through dialogue the words that represent concepts that important to us. Words like 'marriage equality', 'intergenerational justice' or 'energy sustainability' can be strengthened in their relevance in the public discourse. Establishing the meme of these words establishes the underlying concepts and provides a clear path towards change in these directions.


(1) The descriptions of these above Iranian words are found in A history of Modern Iran, Ervand Abrahamian

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