Don’t Tell the Truth, Hide Behind a Euphemism

Collateral-DamageI woke up at 3 AM the morning of January 2, 2015 with military euphemisms on my mind.   Knowing that I would forget the ideas I had, I jotted down a few notes on paper before going back to bed.   A few of the specific euphemisms that were running through my brain included:

  •  Collateral Damage
  • Surge
  • Village Pacification
  • Enhanced Interrogation
  • VUCA
  • Shock and Awe
  • IED
  • Drone Kill

Thinking that this was probably a very incomplete list of the euphemisms out there, I decided to Google the following:  Military Euphemism Examples.  Here is what my screen looked like:

Pages of Search Query

You will notice that I now had 254, 000 results.  I decided to go to “Glossary of Iraqi War Euphemisms” and I found a site full of euphemisms that I had not thought of.  At this point, I realized that any possible list of euphemisms I could compile far exceeded the limits of my concepts for this blog.  I had originally thought to list a few of the more commonly heard euphemisms and discuss the implications of these words in respect to our thinking and behavior.  I would still like to accomplish this objective but now with more deference to those who have gone before in this effort as well as increased humility with the extent of the problem we are facing.  (Following this blog, are two references which anyone who wants to explore this problem further should pursue.)  See the late great George Carlin on Euphemisms.

What is the problem you may ask?  David Bromwich put it very succinctly:

“The frightening thing about the use of euphemisms is their power to efface the memory of actual cruelties.  Behind the façade of a history falsified by language, the painful particulars of war are lost.”David Bromwich

Dangerous-LiarsLet’s take a concrete example to illustrate the problem more.  The United States Senate recently released a report officially titled as:  Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program.   Unofficially, it has been called the Senate Report on Torture.   I downloaded and saved the above report (525 pages) which I assume is the condensed version or summary of the full report.  Just for curiosity sake, I searched for the word Torture in the summary.  There were 131 instances of the word in the 525 page summary.

I then typed in “enhanced interrogation” and found 997 instances of the term in the report.  Apparently our Senate is no fonder of the word Torture then its intended victims were.  Given our penchant for euphemisms, I am almost surprised that they did not call it the “Senate Report on Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.”  With such a title, they could probably sell it to Human Resource Managers looking for better ways to screen potential new hires.  Oh, I also typed in the word Victim to see how many times this was in the report.  It was found a total of 6 times and in each instance, it was related to the phrase:  “United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.”  Apparently, the word victim is too harsh to use.  Maybe we should call victims of torture something like “unintended recipients of undesired attention.”   You must admit it has a sort of ring to it.  I think it sounds a lot more interesting than “victims of torture.”  We could abbreviate it as URUA which can then be used when needed so as not to offend anyone.

grave yard euphemismA euphemism is a word or phrase used in place of another word or phrase.  However, a euphemism is different than a synonym.  The difference is important because it is insidious and it strikes to the heart of the problem that we are facing here.   Here is an example from Baker Editing Services on the use of synonyms versus euphemisms which I think does a good job of illustrating the differences:

“You need to select your synonyms carefully.  Euphemisms are sometimes a good choice as a specific category of synonym when selecting an alternate word.  They are neutral, mild, or vague terms that can be used to express a more offensive or traumatic word or situation without giving offense.  Rather than saying a coworker is a competitive ass, you might say that he is “driven” or “very dedicated to achieving his goals.”

war picturesNotice the difference?  When we use a euphemism, we may be trying not to give offense.  We may also be trying to hide the truth or something that might be unacceptable if rendered in plain English.  Thus in war, words like casualties replace deaths and “suppressing the enemy” replaces “killing” the enemy.  American casualties are reported but not enemy casualties since we don’t really care about the number of freedom fighters (Oh, I meant terrorists) we kill.   We did not really destroy the village and all the women and children and freedom fighters (Oops, my mistake again, I meant terrorists) in it.  We pacified the village.

(‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it’, a United States major said today. He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong.)Peter Arnett

We certainly pacified the town of Bến Tre which now has a population of over 140, 000 people.  Of course, back during the Vietnam War, they were not people, they were Gooks.  I was curious to find out just how many people were killed while we “pacified” the village but I could not find any specific figures.  (If anyone knows the number of people killed at Bến Tre during the offensive, please let me know.) 

Another euphemism or at least it seems to be a euphemism is the concept of “force continuum”:

force continuumA “Use of Force Continuum” is a standard that provides law enforcement officials and security officers (such as police officers, probation officers, or corrections officers) with guidelines as to how much force may be used against a resisting subject in a given situation.

excessive forceThe principle idea here is to use only the amount of deterrence necessary to protect oneself and also accomplish the objectives needed by the situation.  Practically speaking this means that if someone calls you a name, you do not shoot them.  If someone comes at you bare handed, you may use the minimum level of force necessary to protect yourself.  This might mean you would use tear gas or a Taser before you would blast them with a shotgun.  I mentioned that the concept of force continuum seems like a euphemism but perhaps it is more of a misnomer since it often seems like it is an upside down continuum with police shooting first and asking questions later.

The problem of euphemisms is evident in policing as well as in military situations.   However, it is more insidious and subtle here and thus more difficult to recognize.  Nevertheless, it plays an important role in police efforts to prevent crime and violence.  If instead of a looking at someone as a human being or a citizen, police label them as “violent perps”, then they will be likely to use more force than they might need to.  Many of the recent examples in the news of “police brutality” reflect this overuse of force due to the stereotyping of African Americans as more violent and dangerous than Whites or other ethnic groups.  Again, we see the problem here is that we are labeling people not as they really are but as we are programmed for them to be. Human life becomes cheap.  Maybe we should call it a “killing” continuum instead of a “use of force continuum.”

euphemismMadison Avenue has become an obscene part of the communication process in both the military and law enforcement.  Hide it.  Obscure it.  Obfuscate it.  Give them what they won’t understand.  Make it sound benign.  Sugarcoat it and they will buy it every time.  We did not kill the man.  We neutralized him.  We did not choke him to death.  We used acceptable deterrence procedures.   We did not abuse the woman; we used standard assault control techniques.   Let’s not say what we mean.  Let’s not call it what it really was.  He injured himself in the course of our investigative process.   She was injured while we were restraining her for her own safety.

Euphemisms are dangerous.  I would go so far as to say they are evil.  They hide the truth.  They convey a message which does not fit reality.  They paint an inappropriate picture of what is happening in our lives.  They distort the facts.   Without seeing things as they really are, we are lost in a fog of illusion.  We are navigating in a maze without any sense of direction.  We are looking in a mirror that shows us what others want us to believe and not what is really happening.   Here is a recent news story about a 90 year old war veteran who was arrested for feeding the hungry.  Notice the euphemisms:

“While video available on YouTube shows Arnold Abbott and ministers being taken away in police custody, the Mayor states that Mr. Arnold had not been arrested, but rather was detained, cited, and ordered to appear in court.  Those cited face possible jail time and have taken the city to court to fight the ordinance.”  CNN,  11-5-2014

Should you get arrested, I hope you will remember the difference between detained and arrested.  It might help in your plea to the court.   Here is another example of a euphemism that has evolved over time.  It is from the pen of the famous cartoonist Scott Adams known for his Dilbert series.

“You’re fired.”  (1980)

“You’re laid off.”  (1985)

“You’re downsized.”  (1990)

“You’re rightsized.”  (1992)

Do words matter?  Of course they matter.  Why would advertisers, marketers, PR people and political pundits go to such trouble to use words to disguise meanings if they did not matter?

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’  (From Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.)

bank exampleThe golden rule applies unilaterally when euphemisms and misinformation must be spread.  The golden rule is “he, who has the gold, makes the rules.”  In most cases, this easily answers Humpty Dumpty’s question about who is to be the master.  The person who has the most gold is the master.  The poor, the underprivileged, the defeated, the economically disadvantaged, the bottom of the pile minorities and lower income groups do not get to choose the words and make the euphemisms.   If they did, it could lead to some type of new grammar which I would have to call “reverse euphemisms.”  This means euphemisms named by the group that has nothing to hide or would really like to see the truth out.  Thus, in Michael Brown’s case it would have been said that he was:

  • Indiscriminately slaughtered
  • Butchered in cold blood
  • Executed
  • Assassinated

Eric Garner did not die from aspiration or asphyxiation or not being able to get a breath while in a police restraint.  Eric (it would be more accurate to say) died from:

  • Being strangled to death
  • Choked to death
  • Unwarranted and unnecessary application of dangerous and lethal police procedures

article-eric-garner-wife-1203All lives matter:  Black, Brown, Yellow, White, Blue, Pink or any other color.  No exceptions.  No one’s death is a cipher.  When we diminish the victims meaning and their importance through the use of sophistry, euphemisms and carefully crafted words to hide behind, we increase the probability that no lives will matter.  We must not allow others to hide behind words designed to conceal the truth.   Start speaking the truth.  Say the truth.  Change the words you use to reflect the truth.  The truth may just set you and the world free.

Time for Questions:

What is your favorite euphemism?  Why?  What do you think would happen if we stopped using so many euphemisms?  Would we have more truth or less?  Do you think euphemisms are helpful or harmful?  Why?  Can you trust what anyone means anymore?   What is the difference between a lie and a euphemism?

Life is just beginning:

Here are some good sites to visit if you want to explore this subject further:

 

 

 

 

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