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:

 

 

 

 

Social Legacy Systems: How They Block Change and Prevent Progress: Part 2- The Legal Correctional System

Responsible_Prison_Reform-e1373996928213No set of institutions in America are more in need of reform than our legal correctional systems. No systems in America cost the taxpayer more money with less return or value to the taxpayer than our prisons and correctional related systems. No institutions in American cause more misery and heartache than our courts, legal system and correctional institutions. Together, our courts, legal systems and correctional systems cost the American taxpayer well over $100 billion dollars a year. The Economics of the American Prison System”  (Listen to Wake Up Dead Man) as you read my blog today. 

And what do we get for this “investment?”

  • Within three years of being released, 67% of ex-prisoners re-offend.
  • Within three years of being released 52% are re-incarcerated
  • The rate of recidivism is so high in the United States that most inmates who enter the system are likely to reenter within a year of their release.
  • In 2008, one of every 48 working-age men (2.1 percent of all working-age men) was in prison or jail.
  • In 2008, the U.S. correctional system held over 2.3 million inmates, about two-thirds in prison and about one-third in jail. 450px-Incarceration_rates_worldwide
  • Non-violent offenders make up over 60 percent of the prison and jail population. Non-violent drug offenders now account for about one-fourth of all offenders behind bars, up from less than 10 percent in 1980.
  • The total number of violent crimes was only about three percent higher in 2008 than it was in 1980, while the total number of property crimes was about 20 percent lower. Over the same period, the U.S. population increased about 33 percent and the prison and jail population increased by more than 350 percent.
  • Crime can explain only a small portion of the rise in incarceration between 1980 and the early 1990s, and none of the increase in incarceration since then. If incarceration rates had tracked violent crime rates, for example, the incarceration rate would have peaked at 317 per 100,000 in 1992, and fallen to 227 per 100,000 by 2008 – less than one third of the actual 2008 level and about the same level as in 1980.

These facts are from “The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration” by Schmidt, Warner and Gupta, 2010

US_criminal_justice_cost_timeline

These facts have not gone unnoticed by state legislatures and politicians.

“In 2013, 35 states passed at least 85 bills to change some aspect of how their criminal justice systems address sentencing and corrections. In reviewing this legislative activity, the Vera Institute of Justice found that policy changes have focused mainly on the following five areas: reducing prison populations and costs; expanding or strengthening community-based corrections; implementing risk and needs assessments; supporting offender reentry into the community; and making better informed criminal justice policy through data-driven research and analysis. By providing concise summaries of representative legislation in each area, this report aims to be a practical guide for policymakers in other states and the federal government looking to enact similar changes in criminal justice policy.” Vera Institute of Justice     US_incarceration_timeline-clean.svg

I have written about this problem before. See my blogs (The Law Enforcement Legal-Judicial Correctional Complex and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds or “How did our drug laws get so crazy?” It is not a new problem and in the years since I published my first article on it, it has only gotten worse. I published my first article on this issue back in 1995. In it, I applied the concepts of process and quality improvement to the criminal justice System. My article was published in a journal of pro’s and con’s on the justice system. Subsequently, I was asked to speak at a correctional conference in Minnesota and to explain the concepts that I had outlined in my paper.

The conference was attended by hard Right and hard Left people: Correctional Officers, Wardens, Prison Reform Advocates, and Relatives of both victims and prisoners. The Right wanted stronger sentencing guidelines and tougher police policies. The Left wanted more humane treatment for prisoners and more focus on rehabilitation. Each group had read my paper and each group thought I was “on their side.” The fact of the matter was, each side was wrong. I was not on either side. Tougher sentencing (which seems to have won out) has only resulted in prison reasonshigher levels of incarceration, less feeling of safety in society, higher costs and no appreciable decrease in drug usage or correctional costs. The Left may have lost in terms of policy but their solutions would not have fixed the system either. You do not get a better system by fixing defects after they are created. Process improvement focuses on going upstream and preventing defects, not warehousing and reworking them. It became clear as I tried to explain concepts of process control, six sigma system capability, rework, redesign and systems analysis, that I was speaking Greek to the participants, both Left and Right. Neither side had a clue as to what I was talking about. I suspect each side was disappointed that they had not found a new advocate.

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” ― Max Planck,

People in the old paradigm cannot see the new paradigm. Both sides might as well have been deaf and mute while I was speaking since the concepts I introduced were so foreign to them. I noted that the Correctional System needs reform. This was an understatement. The Correctional and Legal systems in America need nothing less than a major paradigm shift. Or to put it another way, we need a revolution in thinking about crime, incarceration and justice. Einstein noted that: “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” We need new thinking and new ideas. We need creative inspired leaders who are willing to break with conventions and boldly go “Where no one has gone before.” This kind of courage is sadly lacking in our political leaders today.

If I had to give my talk over again today, I would not talk about process control or process improvement. I would simply talk about the need for a paradigm shift. I would try with all my might to get the fish to see the water, to get the birds to smell the air and to get the people there to see the failure of the present paradigm. I do not need to recite the facts again. They have been repeated ad nausea. The problem is getting people to open their eyes. More prisons do not mean more safety. Longer sentences do not mean less crime. Tougher policing does not mean less violence on the streets. Witness the wave of protests rocking America today following the Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice and John Crawford III shootings by police. Every one of these names represents a killing by a police officer of an unarmed Black man or Black child. To date, not one killing has resulted in the indictment of a single police officer. The apparent message this sends is that: “Black men are guilty until proven innocent and that that they are so dangerous that they need to be shot first and asked questions of later.”

Bill James in his book “Popular Crime” provides the following observation:

“What we are doing, in a sense, is making ourselves constantly more aware of the threats and dangers around us, and then erecting security walls as if these threats were closing in on us, when in reality, we are pushing them further and further away.” P-96

James consistently provides evidence that we are safer and crime is lower than it has ever been in the history of this country. A point I made in my blog Are We Living in More Dangerous Times?  , see Part 1 and Part 2 with numerous statistics from the FBI and other agencies. Nevertheless, as the media treats us to a steady crescendo of violence and terror on the news, radio and TV, it is hard for anyone to feel like they are really safer or that they are less likely to be murdered in their sleep. Gun sales, concealed carry weapons and ammunitions sales have increased dramatically in the US in the past ten years. Smith and Wesson’s stock price has gone from 1.65 per share in 2004 to over $9 per share in 2014.

“The “Concealed Carry Permit Holders Across the United States” report from the Crime Prevention Research Center released Wednesday (July 10, 2014) analyzed parallels between a 22 percent drop in the overall violent crime rate in the same time period in which the percentage of the adult population with concealed carry permits soared by 130 percent.

The report finds that 11.1 million Americans now have permits to carry concealed weapons, which are up from 4.5 million in 2007. This 146 percent increase parallels a nearly one-quarter (22 percent) drop in both murder and violent crime rates during the same time period.” —  Number of Permits Surges as Crime Rate Drops

Citizens, police, homeowners, retired people, elderly, minorities and even children are walking the streets with their weapons in Condition O. That is cocked and ready to fire. Only the slightest provocation is needed to shoot. A dark figure lurking in a hallway, a man running towards us down the street, someone knocking on our front door late at night and the response is “shoot, shoot and shoot.” The reaction is even more rapid when the “allegorical” assailant is a minority or a stranger.

We need a paradigm shift. We are going in the wrong direction. We are safer and more secure than ever before, but we are walling everyone away who pose even the most minimal threat to our security. We are walling ourselves away behind security fences, gated communities, threat detection systems, private police forces, concealed weapons and reduction of liberty and spontaneity. We don’t feel safer and we are more suspicious of outsiders and strangers. We resent immigrants and foreigners and anyone who is different from us. Send them all back. The hell with sanctuary or diversity! America for people that look like me, act like me and think like me.

Build more prisons!  Invoke the three strike rule!  Make it a two strike rule!  Get tough on crime!  Platitudes like these get voters on the side of security and restraint. No new taxes does not apply to building new prisons. The contradiction between liberty and safety is ignored. Fear drives irrational behavior. Everyone develops blinders as the police go about harassing would be criminals or even suspected criminals or anyone who even looks suspicious.  “Thank God, once we lock them away, we can throw away the key and not have to deal with them anymore!  If only we could put all the “suspects” away, we good people could go about our lives feeling safe and free from the possibility of crime and violence.”

“By age 23, almost a third of Americans have been arrested for a crime, according to a new study that researchers say is a measure of growing exposure to the criminal justice system in everyday life.” — http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/19/us/nearly-a-third-of-americans-are-arrested-by-23-study-says.html?_r=0

Time for Questions:

How safe do you feel: On the street, in your home, late at night, at a movie concert? What makes you feel safe? Have you ever been arrested? Do you know anyone in jail? Can you think of a way that prisons could be eliminated? Do you know how many people are in prison for non-violent crimes? What if they were doing public service instead? What can you do to help bring about prison reform? Are you happy with the present system?

Life is just beginning.

“A moment’s beginning ends in a moment” ― Munia Khan

 

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