Before the Christchurch shooter killed 50 people at a mosque in New Zealand last month, he wrote a document that detailed his beliefs and motivations. It is a strange and disturbing piece – 87 pages in which he interviews himself, asking and answering questions such as “Were/are you a Socialist?” interlaced with anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant, racist, and misogynistic assertions.
News outlets were divided about what to call it. The New York Times referred to it as a “white nationalist manifesto,” while NPR described it as a “hate-filled screed.” What is the difference?
A manifesto, according to Oxford Dictionaries, is “a public declaration of policy and aims.” The word implies a certain logical consistency. You may disagree with the content of a manifesto, but it is coherent and well argued. The most famous example is the “Communist Manifesto” of 1848, which inspired communist revolutions around the world. The word itself comes from the Latin manifestus, meaning “evident, unmistakable.”
A screed, in contrast, is a long and tedious piece of writing. In the 18th century, it was possible for a screed to be dull and inoffensive – you could have “a screed on poetry,” for example. These days, the word suggests something that is full of anger and ranting. Screed is related to shred and originally referred to a scrap of cloth or paper. It probably acquired its negative connotations because it sounds like “screech” or “scream.”
English has a surprising number of words for angry discourse, some of which might also fit. A rant is a wild speech expressing “outrage or dissatisfaction.” A tirade is similar, a long speech “marked by intemperate, vituperative, or harshly censorious language,” according to Merriam-Webster. Both are used more often in reference to spoken language than to written, however. A polemic is an attack on a person or doctrine, with an argument intended to cause controversy. While rants and tirades are emotional, polemics have a certain degree of sophistication and internal logic. Jeremiads are tirades in which the dominant tone is mournful. This word can apply to everything from a list of complaints to bitter laments about the declining morals of society. The word comes from the prophet Jeremiah, who bewailed the sinfulness of Jerusalem in the book of Lamentations.
What’s the best word, then, for statements like that of the Christchurch shooter? Manifesto implies a desire to build something, a positive plan; polemic implies careful argument. Jeremiad might work, except that such airing of complaints is a long-standing American tradition, having been used to make people aware of social problems. It seems that screed or rant best captures the violence, hatred, and incoherence of such writing. ρ