By Rodolfo F. Acuña
Stuart Chase’s The Tyranny of Words (1938) described an “anxiety culture” where the manipulation of word meanings was a device for control. Chase’s book encouraged the study of semantics (the science of word meaning). Within a decade George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) coined the notion of doublespeak, the act of disguising and distorting of words.
What was then a conversation point has become the norm. Today, doublespeak is so common that euphemisms such as “downsizing” for layoffs or you’re fired and “take out” for destroy or murder are used without reflection. The intentional ambiguity has become part of the political stratagem.
The intent of doublespeak is to deny or disguise the truth. As propaganda it rivals Adolph Hitler’s Big Lie and is today so widespread that out of necessity the field of linguistics has grown to the point that there are numerable subfields.
Doublespeak has led to the field of forensic linguistics to breakdown the meaning or intent of words to juries and judges alike. This has led to the development of the International Association of Forensic Linguists that publishes the Journal of Speech, Language, and the Law.
George Carlin had a whole routine on euphemisms such as he "passed away," avoiding the reality of “he is dead.” The use of euphemisms is nothing new; in the 18th century, Shakespeare in Hamlet used the euphemism “die” for “orgasm,” thus Hamlet said "I die in your lap." The problem today is that the use is so pervasive.
There are varying layers of euphemisms which involve sophisticated metaphors. They can be traced back to the Greeks and historically they have enriched poetry and dichos (proverbs). Euphemisms are so common that we often accept their literal meaning without reflection.
To protect oneself it is important to be cautious and develop a general knowledge of semantics. University of California Los Angeles professor Otto Santa Ana’s Brown Tide Rising: Metaphoric Representations of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse is especially informative. Santa Ana gives the reader awareness and the tools to decipher propaganda. Particularly interesting is how the government uses metaphors such “desert storms” substituting it for the reality of the war or invasion of Iraq in the 1990s.
Just thinking about different meanings, how different is the use of “Manifest Destiny” from Deutschland über alles. In U.S. history the so-called Western Expansion has been described as “The Winning of the West” as if the Indian Wars had been a ballgame.
In other instances, it is called the “Western Expansion,” the “Western Movement,” or the “re-annexation of Texas and the Southwest” (which again are all euphemisms for Manifest Destiny). Are these expressions factual?
History is replete with examples of doublespeak. At the turn of the 19th century industrialists and bankers such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Mellon built financial and industrial empires by exploiting the public, the natural resources and exploiting and assassinating workers. Their behavior was so nefarious that historians and reformers dubbed them the Robber Barons.
Later foundations endowed by the robber barons funded historians such as Allan Nevins to rewrite history and rechristen them “Captains of Industry.” The Texas based King Ranch, which accumulated a million acres of land, much of it stolen from Mexican farmers, paid Historian Tom Lea to write a Horatio Alger-like eulogy to Richard King.
In recent times, countless other instances of doublespeak have crept into the American vernacular. Expressions such as “pulling oneself up by his or her bootstrap,” “equality,” “equal opportunity,” “free world” or the “democratic world” are misused. We refer to countries led by dictators as “democratic” simply because they support us. Western Civilization means the white world and along with the “free world” insidiously refer to countries that at one time had empires and profited from the sale of slaves.
As a student of urban history, words such as redevelopment and urban renewal bug me. In Tucson I came across a group called the Southern Arizona Leadership Council whose members have made fortunes by buying government land at bargain prices and displacing homeowners. They have made millions by having the inside track to contracts and jobs.
In Los Angeles we call “urban development” or “urban renewal,” people removers or bulldozed communities. People were displaced and others made huge profits because of this removal.
Lately, words like “class warfare” and “equality” have taken on distorted meanings. In the present economic crisis people call the one percent who often pay minimal or no pay taxes, “job creators.” Are they job creators when most have received huge federal bailouts and they refuse to reinvest the money in American jobs? For that matter are they patriotic because they wear flag pins? Are the ninety-nine percent waging class warfare by criticizing the privilege of the few?
For that matter, are the Kochs philanthropists because their foundations donate money to art galleries that bear their names? Should they be called philanthropists for funding groups to fight government regulation with the purpose of making higher business profits and paying lower taxes?
The tranny of words becomes dangerous when translating foreign words. Recently my friend Arnaldo Cordova wrote an article in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada
in which he referred to the rash of bombings in Mexico as being the byproduct of “delinquencia organizada,” which upon a hurried reading I translated as organized juvenile delinquency. Boy was I embarrassed.
But look at the idiots who translate the word la raza as strictly meaning race when it popularly refers to a people. Because of the gullibility or ignorance of others the xenophobes continue to intentionally confuse communication, entering Hitler’s Big Lie twilight zone.
Recent anti-immigrant campaigns have taken a similar bent. In 1994 the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 campaign that restricted public services for undocumented immigrants was insidiously called 187. In California Section 187 refers to the California Penal Code that defines the crime of murder.
This demonetization has its roots in the “term illegal alien.” Illegal conjures the imagery of criminality; alien invokes the imagery of body snatchers from outer space.
This imagery plays on the American fears that recall 1980s movies of extraterrestrial invasions. They are popularized by people who still believe in the boogeyman and are afraid of the dark. Many white people in Arizona are afraid that they are losing their patrimony to the Mexican body snatchers, although most Mexicans have been in Arizona longer than the snowbirds.
Words have meaning; there are consequences in distorting them. Look no further than the phrase “weapons of mass destruction.” In the process, the truth becomes a casualty when it loses its sense of reality. What is keeping this country afloat is scientific or critical thinking and we are losing this edge. Doublespeak is the antithesis of science.
Thinking is not bad, it won’t kill you. Msgr. Ivan Illich in his book Tools for Conviviality (1975), laments the loss of convivial tools in our society:
I choose the term "conviviality" to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society's members.
Our anxiety culture today is in danger of losing its most basic convivial tool -- reasoned communication. Today, doublespeak has crossed over the line. People are captives of the political euphemisms of others who are purposely dishonest. In the end, this will lead to lethal consequences that may in many instances kill and in other occasions make us poorer and less free as the truth loses its sense of reality.
Published with permission of Rodolfo F. Acuña