Euphemisms can’t obscure the ugly truth about torture

Dick Cheney, torture and the misuse of the English language
Photo: Lwp Kommunikáció

Two days after a U.S. Senate panel published a grim account of the torture tactics used on detainees under the Bush administration, CIA director John Brennan publicly defended his agency’s use of torture, referring to it as “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

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A few days later, former vice president Dick Cheney also went on record as saying that the CIA’s torture program wasn’t torture at all and that he regretted nothing.

As I read the gruesome details of the CIA’s “torture report,” I contemplated how language and euphemisms become tools and weapons with which to mislead, deny and outright lie in the pursuit of whatever temporary goal has been deemed to trump truth.

It brought to mind George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” which almost 70 years later remains as prescient as ever. The essay focuses on obfuscatory political language, which, according to Orwell, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." He goes on to add that “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.”

Webster’s dictionary defines a euphemism as the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant. Euphemisms come in handy when we want to name things without calling up unpleasant mental pictures, when we want to soften the hard edges. Euphemisms and doublespeak are also a way to manipulate public opinion and assign a value system to what is being defined. Politicians use these maneuvers all the time to push their party line and personal agendas.

When the U.S. passed the Patriot Act after 9/11, the name indicated loud and clear that to question it would be to align oneself with those who wish harm on the country. During a “war on terrorism,” one must be willing to brush aside concerns about civil liberties and whether innocent people are detained and interrogated for no clear reason.

Civilian casualties during war are referred to as “collateral damage,” as if destructive, ruthless, permanent and irreversible death never enters the picture. The term also suggests that these people were not the target, but were just an unfortunate and troublesome by-product. In other words, shit occasionally happens.

Genocide is called “ethnic cleansing.” Missiles are often called “damage limitation weapons.” Prisoners of war are called “enemy combatants.” Accidental killing among soldiers on the same side is called “friendly fire,” even though there’s nothing friendly about the methods or the outcome “Freedom fighters” are rebels furthering our own interests, whereas “terrorists” are those we (and our allies) are fighting against.

Euphemisms and doublespeak extend, of course, to politics and everyday corporate usage, and in all cases the goal is the same: to define and present a situation in the most convenient light for one’s self-serving agendas.

In this way, illegal immigrants and undocumented workers become “illegal aliens,” firings become “downsizing,” the death penalty becomes the much more palatable “capital punishment,” movements seeking legal equality for same-sex unions become the “homosexual agenda” (lending a tone of conspiracy to the process), and evidence of any election fraud becomes the less offensive and less criminal “irregularities.”

All these terminological inexactitudes and verbal evasion ultimately have as a goal to sway and to influence. Language is never impartial.

Language is never impartial.

When the Harper government introduced the obnoxiously named and xenophobic Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Bill, it pretended to take a hard stand against “barbaric outsiders” coming here to “impose” their “backwards culture” and religious practices. Once carefully scrutinized, the bill obviously offers very little in terms of advancing women’s rights and protections and, to add insult to injury, was introduced by a party that has actually slashed much-needed funding to women’s groups. But you wouldn’t know that by the proposed legislation’s name, would you?

The similarly offensive Charter of Quebec Values, introduced by the Parti Québécois last year, said so much about the desire to favour the values of the religious and linguistic majority while looking down upon what was considered “other” and foreign. By emphasizing “Quebec Values” in the naming of the Charter, anything that wasn’t viewed as such was immediately deemed as sub-standard and unwanted.

Comedian and social satirist George Carlin discussed a hatred for euphemisms on his 1990 album, Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics. “I don't like words that hide the truth. I don't like words that conceal reality.”

Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal their sins.

“Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal their sins. It's as simple as that. The CIA doesn't kill anybody anymore, they neutralize people . . . or they depopulate the area. The government doesn't lie, it engages in disinformation. The Pentagon actually measures nuclear radiation in something they call sunshine units.”

Similarly, pay attention to how euphemisms can mislead the way controversial and contentious topics are discussed in the mainstream. Women who argue loudly and persistently over gender equality are often referred to as Feminazis, because arguing for women’s rights is exactly like being part of a murderous genocidal army. When women press charges against someone who sexually assaulted them, it is often referred to by mainstream media as alleging “non-consensual sex”, which is just a prettier, whitewashed word for a very ugly criminal act called rape.

An essay on Poynter.org several years ago explored the challenges for journalists to make appropriate and responsible word choices that don’t reveal or perpetrate inherent bias and misinformation. As the essay’s author, Roy Peter Clark, said, “The responsible choice of words is one of the most important and common challenges in American politics and journalism.”

The same, of course, applies here in Canada, and around the world. Words matter. How they are chosen and why they are chosen should be imperative to journalists, so they don’t fall into the lazy trap of becoming convenient tools in the propagation of expressions that further someone else’s agenda.

But, as I have also said before, media education is also required by readers, and by logical extension, voters. The use and misuse of words to influence and shape popular perception means that we owe it to ourselves and what we believe in to be wary of political slogans, to read between the lines, and to question and discard terms that hide or skew the truth.

Sometimes murder is just murder, rape is just rape, and torture is just torture. We need to acknowledge and face the truth head-on if we are to ever change it and demand accountability from those committing these acts.

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