Politics and the English Language

If you haven't read Orwell's masterpiece, now is a good time. Two recent examples of linguistic malfeasance spring to mind. The first is turning the word "illegal" into a noun. I know it's short for "illegal immigrant." But the concision makes a rhetorical difference. It does help subtly to dehumanize the individuals involved. They are illegal immigrants. Which is to say: they are human beings. I'm sympathetic to the suspicion many have about the enforcement issues in the immigration bill. I don't think it's racist or nativist to want to have the rule of law effectively enforced on the border. But equally, I find the demonization of "the other" by this kind of linguistic device to be troubling. It's ugly, period. Maybe it's my Catholic upbringing, but it's morally wrong, in my view. Every person is made in the image of God.

Second, of course, the hideous term: "enhanced interrogation techniques.' I'm not sure where exactly this came from, but George Tenet seems to have been the tipping point. But it's important to note that Tenet has a very personal interest in lying about torture. After all, he will be subject to war crime charges if he concedes that he authorized it. But in his rewording, he has also, it seems to me, conceded something very important. He was clearly concerned that the term "coercive" in the newspeak phrase "coercive interrogation techniques" could be legal peril. It implies physical or mental pressure so severe it renders any choice to cooperate moot. It implies, inevitably, "severe mental or physical pain or suffering," in order to extract information. That is the only relevant legal and moral criterion for torture. Is the information coerced, i.e. is the physical or mental suffering so severe that the victim has no choice but to tell the torturers what the want to hear? If it is, it's torture, under American and international law. And Tenet is a criminal.

Abuse of common English is one of the hallmarks of political mischief. I don't think any journalist should let a politician off the hook on this one. Words matter.