The Politics of Language

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. … Thus, political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

Little has changed since 1946 when George Orwell wrote these words in his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Those defending the indefensible continue to use vague words, abstraction and misleading terms to impose their will. And it can be alarmingly effective because corrupt language obscures the truth and dulls the intellect. As Orwell himself put it, “every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.”

Clear thinking and precise language are therefore essential in today’s world. They are an important defense against manipulation by ideologues and self-interested persons.

Gambling and suicide, in other words

Two issues that emerged recently in our state legislature — the legalization of online sports gambling and the legalization of assisted suicide — demonstrate clearly how language can be manipulated for political ends.

Those seeking to legalize online sports gambling claim it is not really gambling; instead, they call it “daily fantasy sports” (DFS). DFS is undeniably a form of gambling — wagering money in a game of chance induced by a prize. But innocent fun is a lot easier to sell than a lucrative, shady business that preys upon inexperienced and addicted players.

Similarly, proponents of assisted suicide think that by playing with words they can legislate reality. The bill to legalize assisted suicide declares that it is not “suicide” — and in fact prohibits treating it as suicide by requiring, for example, the falsification of death records. Instead, the practice is called “medical aid in dying,” as if merely putting such things in statute changes the nature of the act itself.
Ironically, “medical aid in dying” is a contradiction in terms. But proponents prefer it because it subtly connotes in the mind a health care professional relieving suffering at the end of life. And that is the point.

Policies that violate our innate sense of right and wrong now get a hearing because language is being misused to make us ignore the underlying nature of the acts involved.

Control the language, and one can thereby control the terms of the debate.

Abuse of language, power

In his book “Abuse of Language — Abuse of Power,” Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper remarks that changes in language lead to changes in self-understanding or in how we understand the world.

When words are used to obscure the truth, sophists and flatterers can more easily impose their will, Pieper says. Undeniably, this is our condition today as marketers and spin masters produce media and advertising that function like a drug to shape our sense of reality.
Tragically, language then loses its essential purpose: to communicate truth. Rather, Pieper laments, it becomes a kind of weapon used to manipulate the behavior of others, “while less and less saying anything.

Fortunately, as Orwell notes, the process of succumbing to manipulative language is reversible: “The invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them.”

Take back the language

To push back on these disturbing politics of language, clear thinking and precise language are required. We must be vigilant in calling things by their true name, in words that convey clearly the reality of what is being proposed: assisted suicide, not “medical aid in dying”; gambling expansion, not “fantasy sports.”

Even when the media or individuals adopt misleading terminology, we are not powerless. We can recapture the terms and employ them effectively.

For example, the language of “compassion” has long been used to promote assisted suicide. Proponents have tried to argue that the best way to show compassion for a suffering person is to help end his or her life.

But that platform has been crumbling because assisted suicide opponents are steadily winning the battle over the word “compassion.” We have been successful in pointing out the fact that sending people home to kill themselves with a vial of pills is just the opposite of compassion (the word means “to suffer with”), and what people really want is to be accompanied on the journey at life’s end with ethical care.

Take my hand, not my life, they say.

Both promoting clarity of language and recapturing the terms are necessary strategies to prevail in the public debate. By using words to communicate truth and expose lies, we can restore language to its proper function in society.

Adkins is the executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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