Friday, March 20, 2015

Euphemism: When You Want Truly Obscene Language (9 June 2014)

            It was some time during the 1980s: after 4 July 1982, when I earned my certification as an open-water scuba diver, and before November 1986, when the Iran-Contra affair became national news and few would joke about US actions against Nicaragua. Anyway, sometime in the mid-1980s I went to Roatan Island off the coast of Honduras for some of the best scuba diving in the Caribbean, and I ran into a young officer (captain if I remember right) in the Army of the United States.

            Now at least at that time, and in a cheap resort, there wasn't much to do on Roatan except dive, eat, play cards, play darts, eat more, drink, and, with all of these options, bullshit with other divers. I don't play cards and had had my fill of darts, so I was engaged in some serious drinking and shooting the shit with, among others, the Army officer.

            He wasn't with our diving group, and when we asked what he was doing on Roatan, he said something like, "What else?! I'm a spy." He was also, he said, a "red diaper baby": the offspring of Leftists, one who'd rebelled from his parents a bit — he went no further Right than Liberal — and joined the Army.
            It's possible that he was a spy of sorts, checking out US expatriates on Roatan for news from Nicaragua, though mostly getting in some diving; and there was no reason to doubt his family story. But I don't need any special reason to talk politics, and we proceeded to get moderately drunk, a little loud, and maybe just a tad too emphatic.

            Anyway, apropos of God-knows-what, I took an idea from George Orwell's great essay from 1946, "Politics and the English Language" and pushed the idea farther than I would have sober, saying something like, "You know, the great problem of the 20th century is euphemism!" The Army officer gleefully jumped on the line, pointing out war and famine and genocide and torture and additional abominations, and suggested, strongly, I withdraw my assertion on grounds of its denseness and my inebriated stupidity. I said something with my usual sophistication, like, "Well, maybe not" and backed down a step or two, or possibly excused myself to empty my bladder or go to bed — or passed out, since that's all I remember of the conversation.

            I should have stood my ground more firmly.

            Indeed, euphemism is not the great problem of the 20th century or any other century, but as the sainted Georges insist — Carlin as well as Orwell — language is important, and we should recognize in Orwell's words, "that the present political chaos," and that's any "present" I've experienced, "is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

            And the most serious of "the decay of language" and the perversion of language is political euphemism, reinforced by "question begging" — in the old senses, including evading the real issues — "and sheer cloudy vagueness." Orwell's examples: "Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements." That was in the mid-20th century; in our time we have "nuclear exchange," "collateral damage," "friendly fire," "projection of force," and "area denial munitions" (= landmines) for some military euphemisms, and less spectacular business and political euphemisms for firing people, putting them on the government dole, and then cutting off their money: they're downsized, assisted with welfare, and then encouraged to take responsibility.

            Orwell asks his readers to picture "some comfortable English professor" — an example I resent but won't deny — "defending Russian totalitarianism" under Stalin: i.e., Stalin of the purges, massive "transfer[s] of population," and murderous famines. This hypothetical academic "cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so,'" but would more likely say or write something along the lines of, "‘While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.’"

            This is parody, but, as the Brits might say, spot on parody, including the point that "The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism," and, given Stalin's enthusiasm in killing off his own people, a euphemism that is obscene.

            Overstating his case, Orwell says that most political writing of his time was "largely the defense of the indefensible" and notes, correctly and with no exaggeration, that "Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties."

            So let's follow Orwell and imagine cases nowadays where politicians, pundits, and policy wonks are pressed to say directly what they mean.

            For example, when the President says, "No options are off the table," let's have a reporter ask, "Do you mean, then, that you'd be willing to destroy the major cities of _________ with thermonuclear weapons?" When a senator calls for a "surgical strike" with a drone-launched Hellfire Missile, s/he can be praised for not suggesting the older method of dropping high explosives or incendiaries on a whole village or town but only taking out a house or two — but asked if s/he is suggesting killing or wounding or maiming some relatively innocent people in that house or two in order to kill or wound or maim (given good intelligence and luck) some bad people.

            "The phrase surgical strike," as George Carlin has said, "might be more acceptable if it were common practice to perform surgery with high explosives."

            When fiscal conservatives talk about the need for "belt tightening," they can be asked how many people should lose their jobs for an appropriately tight belt. When defenders of the Bill of Rights talk vaguely about rights of privacy or bearing arms, they should be pressed to give approximate body counts to be risked to protect their e-mails or their right to bring a large-magazine weapon into a bar.

            So, again, euphemism was not the great problem of the 20th century, but it would be nice in the 21st if people talking politics were pressured to spell out what they mean with concrete words that call up images.

            If you believe that there are too many deer in an area, say if you like that "We should cull the herd," but add by that you mean shoot some, especially female deer of reproductive years. If you believe we should send troops into combat in support of some policy — and there are times when the United States should do so — say that you wish to send out heavily armed young people to enforce a policy decision by threatening to kill, wound, and maim other young people (and some miscellaneous old people and children) or threaten to do so until we have imposed the will of our leaders upon their leaders. And we'll destroy a fair amount of property, or at least threaten to.

            Basic rule: If you're willing to do something nasty, be willing to say what it is you're proposing to do.

            So, as indicated, I am willing to say that I believe there are situations where I will acquiesce in the killing, wounding, and/or maiming of children in order for my government to get its way. I must say that since I'm not an absolute pacifist. Therefore I believe there can be instances were one should engage in warfare — and kids are always killed in wars of any size. If you drop high explosive or incendiary ordnance into a village or town or city, you will kill people and destroy the products of their labor, and it is somewhere between ridiculous and abhorrent to say, "Well, I didn't intend to do that harm." Some nut throws a heavy-duty fragmentation grenade into a crowd and that's murder, even if he only intended to kill a bad person. Period — and ditto if you drop from the air or send in on a missile a whole lot more high explosive than in a grenade.

            What makes me a "Peacenik" is that I believe you should kill people to get your way only when you really, really have to. I'm one of those bleeding-hearts because I want people to think carefully about even necessary killing and acknowledge that even justifiable and justified homicide is still homicide and that large-scale killing in warfare is evil, even if there's an ethical imperative to do the do the killing.

            It is our duty to choose the lesser of two or least of several evils if those are our only choices. To choose evil, however, is to choose evil — and there is always the possibility that we missed a way out of the dilemma, and the strong likelihood that we put off action until we were trapped in that dilemma.

            Okay, people: do what you're going to do; propose the policies you think we must follow, but call deeds by the right names and bloody well take responsibility for what you do and what you recommend to do.
            Then, and only then, can we have moral discussions. And without moral discussions, we can't have moral action.

            Insofar as euphemism keeps us from honest thought and discussion, it may not be the major problem of politics, but it is a big one.

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