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Laurence

The Abuse of Language and the Dehumanization of the Person

Feb. 22 at 10:25am

This article was submitted to the member forum.  Since it touches on the issue of language, which Jules raised below, we're moving it here.

Language is the most powerful tool ever invented. Its simultaneous precision and malleability provide infinite possibilities of expression, whether it’s through poetry, mathematics, music, or W-2 income tax forms. People use language to define their world, explore their reality, and share in the human experience. The English language is especially fun. With over a billion words at their disposal, acrobatic English speakers can tell the same story a million different ways, exploring alternative nuances and subtle meanings all the while. Using inappropriately high or inappropriately low language can also obfuscate the actual circumstances of a given situation--granted this is often done inadvertently and without much consequence. It is the deliberate misuse of language that is far more insidious and far more troubling.

Language can elevate people towards shared truth and beauty, it can also be manipulated, used to deceive people and contort reality instead of making it understandable. Saying “I love you” can have much more significance and meaning than a kiss alone, but and saying “I love you” without meaning it can be all the more devastating than a kiss that has been wasted. The significance of language, and corresponding trust that people place in the spoken word is invaluable, and yet also prone to manipulation. It is the trust that people place in words, a person’s dependence on words to define consciousness, that in his open letter, On Evasive Thinking, Vaclav Havel makes a very telling observation:

Notice, for example, how often the words we use these days  are more important than what we are talking about. The word—as such—has ceased to be a sign for a category, and has gained a kind of occult power to transform one reality into another.

In Havel’s 1960s Czechoslovakia, any and all bad news was reported in deliberately obfuscating ways. When Czechs voiced their concerns about neglected infrastructure and crumbling buildings that dropped window ledges onto the civilians below, they were chided for their “disproportionality” in not concerning themselves with more global affairs, with higher and mightier concerns than the wellbeing of their little villages. The Czechs would be patronized with lofty language about higher causes and more pressing global concerns. This would continue for a little while until the public’s collective anger subsided, and then nothing would be done to address the problem.

This simple manipulation of information is not just a bygone tactic of Soviet propagandizing. Purposefully inflated and confusing prose has now become the norm in describing U.S. military operations, where the select use both of euphemisms and exceedingly technical lingo combine to leave one totally bamboozled as to what is happening in combat zones. In his Counterinsurgency Guidance issued on Aug. 1st of 2010, General David Petraeus requested that, in order to “earn the people’s trust,” U.S. soldiers should, “Walk. Stop by, don’t drive by. Patrol on foot whenever possible and engage the population.” Unfortunately, this approach has resulted in the frequent occurrence of “dismounted complex blast injuries,” a new and separately recognized form of injury defined as, “an explosion-induced battle injury sustained by a warfighter on foot patrol that produces a specific pattern of wounds. In particular, it involves traumatic amputation of at least one leg, a minimum of severe injury to another extremity, and pelvic, abdominal or urogenital wounding (emphasis added).” These injuries are caused by “improvised explosive devices” that are sustained by our “peace-keeping/counter-insurgency forces” while they are out trying to “win hearts and minds” and maybe, if they have to, “neutralize targets.”

One might expect this sort of dense bureaucratic word swamp on tax forms or home-ownership leases, but not as the mainstream presentation of what is happening to the military personnel fighting “to win hearts and minds.” Notice how the cliché objective, “to win hearts and minds,” is stated so pleasantly, so simply, and so clearly. It’s supposed to leave us without the faintest idea of what the troops are actually doing, while giving us some peace of mind and the assurance that the U.S. military is conducting itself with compassion and understanding. Meanwhile, it is terribly unfortunate that, while walking around outside of their big expensive impersonal armored vehicles, American soldiers are suffering “dismounted complex blast injuries.”

The American public is fed its dosage of sanitized language about American soldiers neutralizing targets (instead of killing them; they’re just making them neutral, like true peace-keepers) and encountering improvised devices that give them complex blast injuries. What are the soldiers particularly doing? People aren’t quite sure. What is happening to the soldiers? We don’t know; it’s complex. What’s causing these complexities? We don’t know, some sort of improvised thing. Behind the off-putting rhetoric lies the clandestine reality: young American soldiers are being compelled to get out of their vehicles and walk around talking to a hostile populace. While doing this, they step on crude bombs that are blowing off their legs, hands, fingers, and genitalia, leaving them maimed and sterile for the rest of their lives.

Despite all of America’s technology and her determination to fight the clean fight, young men and women are sustaining heinous injuries from comparably primitive forces, and there’s not too much that can protect them. This is the truth from which the American public is being protected. It is a depressing and unjust reality, one deemed to be incommunicable to the public, and one that is thus buried in enough vernacular to make it inaccessible to the casual reader of the news.

Americans are increasingly disillusioned with the Middle East democracy project. Every crude bomb that disfigures a dismounted soldier is another point against the project. So American hearts and minds must be dimmed by the extremely convoluted presentation and results of America’s war-making policies. While remarking on the crumbling infrastructure in Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel writes, “We need to only use the magic word…and something unforgivably half-baked is suddenly not only excused but may even be raised to the level of an historical necessity.” The unpleasant truth behind military policy and the devaluing of its soldiers is certainly half-baked, but with enough puffy and sweet words the public is expected to believe that it is delicious.  The American public is not trusted with the truth, and a people that are kept in ignorance are kept in a kind of bondage. People kept in bondage are not people being treated with dignity.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is the lack of recognition that the wounded soldiers receive. Even though the military is now diverting funds to develop and attract urogenital reconstructive surgeons, these men and women are still casualties twice over. To make it more bearable and acceptable, the tragedy and humanity of a soldier’s injuries is disguised. They have been maimed while trying to win Afghan hearts and minds, and now their dignity is the casualty in the war to win American hearts and minds. The startlingly mortal American soldiers are not being mutilated by homemade bombs in Afghanistan. They’re sustaining casualties in the form of complex blast injuries from explosive devices, which is much more appropriate. But when the soldier is disguised, and what he is doing is disguised, and what is happening to him is disguised, his dignity is lost. He has become an ambiguous, faceless piece of a complex linguistic equation that only suffices to describe the sustained disrespect for life in the current culture. If they believe in a cause enough to volunteer life and limb in its defense, and if we wish to honor them, than we owe them and the American public the unfiltered truth.


 

Teresa Manidis

Laurence, your piece is well-written and persuasive.  As a writer, I, too, am horrified when English (any language, but my own beloved English, especially) is twisted and contorted to say what she does not mean.  And, very often, I am left thinking, 'Surely, no one can accept this fodder?  This makes no sense at all!' - and yet, somehow it's front-page news, or included in a State of the Union Address.  In one of my recent posts here ('Input Most Welcome,' members' forum), I reference a young veteran who, tragically, lost all four limbs from one of those 'dismounted complex blast injuries.'  Your juxtaposition of our current problem with rhetoric and the tragedy these brave men and women face is apt - and heart-breaking.  As you say, this ongoing deception does a disservice to the American people, and, especially, to those who risk (and lose) life and limb to protect them.

#1 - Feb. 23 at 9:09am | quote

Laurence

Thank you Teresa. It is frustrating how many people allow themselves to be maniplulated, and worse still how many realize it and yet do nothing. More and more recently I've felt the bondage that comes with ignorance, that being ignorance that is fostered by deception or the conceallment of truth. 

Many Americans no longer can imagine or conceptualize a world or a government without our modern problems, because the truth behind their causes, or the potential solutions, is kept in the shadow of distracting and off-putting rhetoric. As the saying goes, "The truth shall set you free."

That's dangerous, better not risk it!

#2 - Feb. 23 at 9:51am | quote

 

Jules van Schaijik

Great article, Laurence.

I agree that language can be used/abused to justify an unjust cause and to victimize the soldiers fighting for it. Victimize them twice as you explain very well: first by sacrificing them to that cause, and second by covering up the injuries they sustained.

But your analysis to some degree presupposes (does it not?) that the cause is unjust or the strategy reckless. To use persuasive, upbeat, or rousing language in the service of a good cause seems justified. In that case it would be inspiring rather than manipulative.

Likewise, there may be laudable reasons for concealing the identy of a soldier, or the precise injuries he has sustained. Would you want the whole town to know precisely what happened to your "extremity"? Is it not better, more charitable, often, to conceal the details? It seems to me that the good of the soldier, the morale of a nation involved in war, the success of the cause, etc., can justify a use of language aimed at softening and/or partly concealing the harsh realities it refers to.

#3 - Feb. 23 at 12:46pm | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

To further Jules' point, which had occurred to me too, I am thinking of what Newman says in the Grammar of Assent about the language of medicine:  It is deliberately "notional", as opposed to real, in order to render it duly "manageable".  

I agree with you entirely that where the purpose is to deny or obscure truth and reality, the use of euphemism is abusive.  

But I can imagine that if the war is just, then there is a kind of necessity in cloaking its gruesome realities.  Otherwise, who could bear them?  Yet bear them we must.  So we distance ourself from them, using terms like "collateral damage".

#4 - Feb. 23 at 1:09pm | quote

Laurence

It’s true; I do find the cause of winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan to be reckless. However, I do not believe I would change my argument if I did not. I think the truth of the matter should be left as unambiguous as possible, and then everyone can try and decide if it is just. At the moment, we are being deprived of that choice, or at least of the facts that we need to make that proper judgment. Likewise, using upbeat or celebratory language is often appropriate, but not as a form of concealment, as we have here. 

#5 - Feb. 23 at 8:42pm | quote

Laurence

I often wonder where to draw the line with censorship when it pertains to decency or respect for people. I think it’s safe to say that censorship for the purposes of convoluting something is wrong. Taking the edge off of some bad news is less problematic, but I think that if I had to choose an extreme, I’d definitely take the blinding light over the acrid smokescreens.

It’s especially important in this case, when we are talking about military deployment and strategy. If we’re going to send our troops into harm’s way, or require some extra sacrifice, we owe it to our troops and ourselves to know exactly what we’re asking of them. This doesn’t mean we should blare the realities of war all over the TV and radio, but neither should we deliberately conceal it. Truth should be plainly available for those who wish to know it. If it were available, more people would be drawn to it.

#6 - Feb. 23 at 8:43pm | quote

Laurence

But I can imagine that if the war is just, then there is a kind of necessity in cloaking its gruesome realities.  Otherwise, who could bear them?  Yet bear them we must.  So we distance ourself from them, using terms like "collateral damage".

I think that if a war is just, we could do much better in withstanding its realities. I suspect that part of our discomfort with the graphic nature of these injuries from the Middle East conflicts comes from a certain guilt we have from sending in the troops without exactly knowing what we were sending them in for, or where to, or for how long. The gruesomeness of war is not something to celebrate nor is it something in which we should immerse our children, but I do not think we should distance ourselves from its consequences, especially when the consequences are people, fellow countrymen who need support. If we understand the necessity and justification for the conflict, then we should understand the consequences and bear them in stride, albeit it with heavy hearts.

#7 - Feb. 23 at 8:44pm | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

Think, though, of the way soldiers in WW II would use euphemisms, even light-hearted ones, in their way of speaking about their experiences.  It made their duties bearable.  It kept them afloat psychologically, while they are engaging in activities that were abhorent to them, but necessary.  

A doctor does this too.  He speaks of a disease ravaging a child in very clinical terms.  He has too.  He's not in any way denying the truth of the disease, or trying to downplay its horror.  He is giving himself the spiritual distance from it he needs to treat it as doctor should.  

#8 - Feb. 24 at 11:06am | quote

Laurence

Katie van Schaijik, Feb. 24 at 11:06am

Think, though, of the way soldiers in WW II would use euphemisms, even light-hearted ones, in their way of speaking about their experiences... A doctor does this too.  He speaks of a disease ravaging a child in very clinical terms.  

I think the WWII soldiers, as well as the American public (who were engaged in a total, declared war, let's not forget that we haven't fought one of those in America for a while) had no illusions about the realities of their conflict. They could talk about its aspects with euphemisms, but everyone knew the score; everyone knew the terms.

This is not the case with our military today nor with the relationship between the military, the government, and the American public.

With the doctor and the child, I think there's an appropriate amount of censorship by the doctor because he's talking to a child. Children merit a certain amount of cushioning. Adults deserve the the truth, and I would hope that the doctor doesn't deceive to the point of giving the child's parents the wrong impression about the disease, which is clearly the case in military reporting today.

#9 - Feb. 24 at 12:17pm | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

Laurence, Feb. 24 at 12:17pm

I think the WWII soldiers, as well as the American public ... had no illusions about the realities of their conflict. They could talk about its aspects with euphemisms, but everyone knew the score; everyone knew the terms. This is not the case with our military today nor with the reltionship between the military, the government, and the American public.

Perhaps so.  But, then, we should separate out the use of euphemism as a device for deception and manipulation (e.g. calling abortion "choice") and euphemisms with an entirely different purpose, i.e. the purpose of allowing a person to bear an otherwise unbearable reality.

With the doctor and the child, I think there's an appropriate amount of censorship by the doctor because he's talking to a child. 

Newman's point, as I understand him, was not respecting the child, but respecting the doctor.  Doctors use scientific and clinical language because of the spiritual distance it provides from human sufferings that would otherwise quickly become overwhelming.

I'll see if I can find the passage.

#10 - Feb. 25 at 10:30am | quote

Laurence

Newman's point, as I understand him, was not respecting the child, but respecting the doctor.  Doctors use scientific and clinical language because of the spiritual distance it provides from human sufferings that would otherwise quickly become overwhelming.

 This being the case, than I think the argument is the same for the doctors as it was for the WWII soldiers, namely that their use of euphemism is acceptable because they do know the truth, and are not actually deceiving themselves or others. 

As you say, that's an important distinction, but I guess I shy away from calling any of these hypothetical realities unbearable. At least, I certainly do not think we should use decption as a precaution to truth, just in case the truth turns out to be very difficult to bear.

#11 - Feb. 25 at 8:27pm | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

 

Laurence, Feb. 25 at 8:27pm

As you say, that's an important distinction, but I guess I shy away from calling any of these hypothetical realities unbearable. At least, I certainly do not think we should use decption as a precaution to truth, just in case the truth turns out to be very difficult to bear.

I think we're mostly agreeing with each other.

I agree with you that deception is wrong, and so are intentionally deceptive euphemisms.  

My only caution would be that not all use of euphemisms is intentionally deceptive.  And in fact I think war is one of the places where the use of euphemisms is good and necessary, provided we are speaking of a just war.

It becomes offensive and abusive when political leaders use it to hide truth from a public that would oppose the war if it were properly informed.

#12 - Feb. 26 at 8:33am | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

I asked Jules to help me find that passage in Newman.  He said, "Google, 'Newman', 'Grammar of Assent,' and 'paroxysm'."  I did so, and, behold, I found it.

To take a very different instance of this contrast between notions and facts;—pathology and medicine, in the interests of science, and as a protection to the practitioner, veil the shocking realities of disease and physical suffering under a notional phraseology, under the abstract terms of debility, distress, irritability, paroxysm, and a host of Greek and Latin words. The arts of medicine and surgery are necessarily experimental; but for writing and conversing on these subjects they require to be stripped of the association of the facts from which they are derived.

I think the noble practioners of war also need the protection of a language stripped of association with all the shocking realities.  It enables them to carry out their duties.

But it's true, and problematic, that that same "notional language" can assist in the covering up of vile injustice.

#13 - Feb. 26 at 8:52am | quote

 

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