Euphemism, Exaggeration, and Insult in Political Language

Daniel Goodman, blogging as “The New England Patriot” in 2006, rightly connects Orwell’s observations about political euphemisms to 21st century American politics:

[ from How Political Language Distorts Reality, Wednesday, October 25, 2006]

Political “orthodoxy…seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” So wrote George Orwell in his essay “Politics and the English Language”, among other insightful remarks he made about political language. The first problem with political language, Orwell says, is that it’s bland and repetitive. If you want to be in politics, you have to master the art of speaking in a “lifeless” style where you have to be excruciatingly careful with everything you say lest you say something ‘politically incorrect’ or anything that could potentially be politically harmful.

President Obama, in most cases, seems to be a careful speaker; his remarks soon after Professor Gates was arrested appear to be an exception, for example. Moreover, as the N.E. Patriot might suggest, President Obama is careful partly because he doesn’t want to a make a political mistake. However, it is also possible that the president and other politicians (from different points on the political spectrum) who choose words carefully are simply behaving like adults in a political arena that now seems dominated by excessive rhetoric, adolescent exaggeration, and insult. (Lindsey Graham seems to choose words carefully, to select just one person who disagrees with Obama.) Additionally, I am still in search of a satisfactory definition of “politically incorrect,” partly because it seems as if one person’s assessment that a word, phrase, or term is “politically incorrect” may be another person’s assessment that the same word, phrase, or term is simply more discerning. Not that many years ago, a lot of my colleagues (at the time) howled when they were asked to change “Chairman” to “Chair” in departmental documents, and they alleged political correctness was the culprit behind this outrageous request. Now “chair” not only seems reasonable but more elegant.

It’s no doubt true, as the N.E.P. and Orwell suggest, that politicians still attempt to bore us into submission by speaking dully. “We’re making progress,” they say, or they say, “We support hard-working Americans.” Or, “We believe in freedom.” Snore.

The more dominant strain of popular political discourse now, however, may be the incendiary, exaggerated kind. Radio talker Mike Malloy likes to refer to “the Bush Crime Family.” Glenn Beck and others hurl “communist,” “fascist,” and “Maoist” at almost anything that moves, including a call to support volunteerism. Beck also called Obama a “racist” who “hates white people.” Keith Olbermann reduces Bill O’Reilly to “Bill-o,” and Bill reduces Newsweek or the New York Times to “the far Left fringe”; he must mean that curious species of the far Left fringe: media controlled by large corporations, but no, that can’t be right because that would include Fox “News.”

A Democratic Congressperson from Florida accuses Republicans of wanting those without health-care to die, and Republicans claim health-care reform will create “death panels.” Laura Ingraham claims the Obama administration treats Fox News like “Islamic Jihadists,” and . . . so it goes. Interestingly, Ingraham and others seem now to despise folks like Lindsey Graham, Newt Gingrich, and Bob Dole as much as they despise members of the Democratic Party–a curious development.

In any event, the insults, slurs, and wild accusations may not be matters of fact, but neither are they euphemisms, nor, at first, are they dull. They are foolish at best, vicious at almost-worst, and frequently repulsive. To the extent that they might induce someone to do something really stupid and harmful, they may qualify as indirectly dangerous–but they still qualify as protected “free speech,” of course. Orwell may have anticipated this kind of language when he complained about such cookie-cutter terms as “jackboot” and “lackey,” but his essay does not seem fully to have anticipated how raw, unbounded, puerile, inaccurate, and excessive language would become even when something as policy- and detail-oriented (and, arguably, pragmatic) as health-care reform was under discussion.

Euphemism or slur: pick your poison? One longs for a mythical time when those who disagree might agree simply to disagree, without the aide of verbal slashing and burning. A sober, civil debate: that seems like such a refreshing–and unlikely–alternative.


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