Column: The reactionary vocabulary of fear
Our reactions to tragedy say a lot about who we are as people.
When members of terror organizations attack a metropolis like Paris, leaders and individuals the world over rally around their global neighbors in shows of support both great and small. An altruistic few lend time and assistance to help the recovery process.
Not too long after, politicians and politically savvy individuals debate over asylum for refugees, media coverage of equally devastating tragedies and other polarizing rhetorical concepts.
Unfortunately, this pattern is not uncommon in tragedies of any sort. Solidarity eventually turns into dichotomized argumentative fuel for politicos and pundits alike. That fuel lights a fire in some individuals to take to social media and public forums with their opinions.
Suddenly, the tragedy fades into the background while the arguments creep into the forefront of the conversation in a toxic pick-a-side that allows for little grey area. The “just the facts” mantra of news gets lost in the fracas of reaction and biased extrapolation.
Needless to say, this cycle of media and public reaction is a mess. Meanwhile, according to Al Jazeera, Germany has been taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees from the throughout the Middle East.
So maybe we can understand things better from a more German point of view.
One of the most interesting parts of the German language is its proclivity for making usually long, all-encompassing compound nouns. Some terms have entered the English vernacular – like “wanderlust” to describe the itch to travel.
For example, take this sentence: Part of the reason we tend to jump to black-and-white conclusions is because of our reliance on Realpolitik.
“Realpolitik” describes the phenomenon of political practices independent of moral or ethical considerations in the name of national advancement. To many who lean heavily on one side of the American political spectrum, those on the other side run their parties in this manner.
Go to the news, though, and you see that pundits from all sides try to play the power-politics card to try and enforce their hands.
In the case of Daesh (one of the many names for the group responsible for the Paris bombings among others in places like Beirut), pundits argue incessantly about accepting or barring refugees from Syria for various reasons. Meanwhile, non-Daesh citizens in places like Syria scramble to find asylum away from the militant group.
For those who sympathize with innocent Muslims and refugees, this stalemate causes a great deal of Weltschmerz.
Literally translating to “world pain,” this German word refers to the pessimism or melancholy over the state of the world. Weltschmerz usually comes from a place of the world failing to live up to our ideal depiction of it.
In fact, Weltschmerz seems to be the spirit of our age – the zeitgeist, if you will.
From nitpicks as miniscule as overuse of cellular technology to concerns as large as national tragedy, many people show this sort of disenchantment to the world around us. Humans have always felt some form of Weltschmerz, but we now have platforms to express it publicly.
This collective angst – also a German derivative – leads many to feel as if we are plodding our way to the downfall of humanity. However hyperbolic it seems, some individuals feel as if these tragedies are a sign of the human race’s turbulent fall from power.
There’s a German word for that, too: Goetterdaemmerung. It’s an allusion to the Norse concept of Ragnarok, or the annihilation of the world in the last great conflict between gods and evil.
Turn on the television to national news outlets. See if you can’t find a pundit professing or a story implying the Goetterdaemmerung of humanity as we know it.
In the midst of this Kuddelmuddel, or chaos, one thing falls to the wayside: the people and places still reeling from the tragedy.
In the case of Paris and Beirut, recovery efforts still go on in both the country and the minds of every citizen in both countries. Moreover, their sense of Heimat changes demonstratively.
Of the German words already listed, Heimat is the shortest yet most complex, describing one’s relationship toward a certain spatial unit. It usually carries positive connotations, since it contrasts directly with social alienation.
However, when tragedy strikes your home or militant members of your homeland inflict worldly tragedy, that Heimat starts to lose its shine.
In the case of those from lands under the Daesh umbrella, their connection to an earthly Heimat starts to shake as others wrongly assign blame in the Kuddelmuddel that comes with new tragedy.
It’s times like these where we need to learn one more German word: Gemuetlichkeit.
This word refers to a state or space of coziness and friendliness. As social animals, humans seek out some form of these things from others – especially in times of heavy isolation. It’s the reason why we show solidarity in the first place, and it’s what can help make the recovery effort that much easier.
As trite as it sounds, it’s what makes the world a better place.
But with doomsday-like media coverage and polarized pontification raiding media outlets, we all need some semblance of togetherness. So, in a world of Weltschmerz over the Goetterdaemmerung of humanity, reach out and provide a little Gemuetlichkeit.
A little bit of German can go a long way.
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