The Dangers of Euphemism

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A Way With Words, Part IV

I recently listened to a lecture series from The Modern Scholar company called A Way With Words: Writing, Rhetoric, and The Art of Persuasion. It was an enjoyable 7 disc jaunt, if not entirely riveting.

The most interesting part of the lectures for me was the brief section on Euphemism. The lecturer, Michael C. Drout, states that “euphemisms rot the brain.”

He cites Orwell’s Politics And The English Language as a foundation of his argument. I’m paraphrasing, but Orwell essentially says that euphemisms encourage intellectual dishonesty and make corruption and genocide and various hideous acts more possible.

How? Because “euphemisms do not summon images to mind.” It should be noted that we’re not talking about euphemisms in the sense of saying “Darn it!” instead of “Damn it.”

Rather, he’s speaking about terms like “ethnic cleansing,” which does not conjure up images of the horrors associated with the actual processes of genocide.

“Border modification” sounds much nicer than dwelling on the images that might occur if we allow ourselves to think about what it actually meant when American Indians were brutally driven off of their lands.

I am very interested in having the highest clarity of thought possible; of being intellectually honest, to borrow a term from Michael Drout. I never would have thought of euphemisms in this light, but now I find it very hard to counter their arguments.

Do the words cause the atrocities? No, I think that’s going too far. Can they make them more possible, or sustain them once they have begun? I think it’s plausible.

Dunce Two, having done the law thing, you’re probably better acquainted with rhetoric than anyone I know. Thoughts on this?

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8 thoughts on “The Dangers of Euphemism

  1. I can see the dangers of euphemism in this context. Like you, I think to say that euphemisms cause atrocities is taking it a step too far. But strong arguments for euphemisms making atrocities more possible, and definitely sustainable, particularly in light of the examples you cite, could certainly be made.

    No one would turn a blind eye to, or certainly support or join a “kill everyone that doesn’t have the same genetic makeup as you” movement or a “steal their land, rape their women, and give them small-pox infected blankets” campaign. Right? But you give it a benign name, and people get on board. Or at least look the other way.

    This leads me to question what the source of these euphemisms is. They don’t cause the atrocities, we’ve agreed, but what causes the euphemism? Who, for example, came up with the term “ethnic cleansing”? Or “border modification”? The underlying behavior is the same, no matter what you label it. So why assign it a warm and fuzzy name? Is it the person initially wanting to engage in/justify the behavior? Or someone wanting to justify or explain away the behavior after the fact? A Hitler at the outset? A sympathetic reporter with an agenda after the fact? And who are they designed to convince/persuade/confuse? The authorities? The public? The self?

    There does seem to be an element of glaring, malevolent dishonesty at play here, one I never would have considered until you brought this up. I took a graduate-level rhetoric course in college, and then, yes, law has its own rhetorical components, and I have long been amazed at the power that words and labels and titles and ideas can have. These euphemisms, for example, two words each, carry with them a tone and message and spin and agenda far greater than the contents of their relative few nouns and consonants. This is sort of ominous.

    It does make me, though, want to strive for the intellectual honesty you reference, both to find it and to perpetuate it. This will be quite a task as I am a king of rationalization (which I guess could, itself, be deemed a euphemism, probably for justifying reckless, selfish behavior because I am bored and immature and narcissistic). I will have to work on that.

    • “They don’t cause the atrocities, we’ve agreed, but what causes the euphemism?”

      Well, based on the Orwell esssay and Drout lectures, they could be caused by anyone who wanted to exploit them for their own ends. I think the first time I heard the term “ethnic cleansing” was during the Yugoslavia wars when Milosevic was in power. If you were a propaganda minister with an understanding of the power of stripping images from language, it might rank high on your to do list.

      • I think I may recall first hearing that term around the same time. The media picks up on these terms and bandies them about. That’s where I hear them from. That’s why it made me wonder. Do the so-called “propaganda ministers” or whoever they are “leak” these to the media, and then the message gets spread, or does the media initiate this Disneyland jingoism to soften things up themselves? Does/should the media have an ethical obligation to parse through these misleading labels and get to some form of the truth? Modern media seems more concerned with being first than being right. And more concerned with being popular than anything else. Tell them what they want to hear.

        • I have two great examples from the department plan from my library. Not sinister, but incomprehensible:

          “Provide HR WITH desired staff characteristics for organizational job descriptions to ensure hiring for key characteristics to move strategic plan initiatives”

          and

          “Implement, evaluate and sustain Enjoying Life goals, measures and targets that address customer service delivery and operational efficiencies”

          and

          “Exhibit excellent customer service and communication to external and internal constituents”

          Oh yeah.

  2. When did comprehensibility become politically incorrect (speaking of euphemisms) (politically correct = racist, bigot, xenophobe)? But it’s almost like, “if you can read this department plan and understand what we are talking about and that it is directed at you, we are doing something wrong.” Why must we tip-toe around everything? Why can’t it say “don’t hire any crazies or people with glaring personality deficiencies because working with those people sucks?” And what the hell is an “internal constituent”?

    • The thing that makes people the uneasiest is the sense that if they fail to live up to a poorly worded, poorly conceived bullet point, they could be disciplined for something that never made sense in the first place.

      “You agreed to innovate on behalf of efficient effectiveness and culture building. You’re not doing it!”

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