Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Orwell, Thou Shouldst Be Living at This Hour! (So I Could Give You a Dope Slap)

Two -- no, make that three -- of my Facebook friends passed along this meme today.  One commented, "I greatly prefer precision in the words I and others use. These terms are quite precise." Well, no, they aren't: the preferred ones are just as imprecise and ideologically loaded as the ones they're nominated to replace.  A couple are clearly meant as snark, but snark is okay for liberals, just not for the Right or especially -- Barack forbid! -- the Left.

Orwell himself was wrong about a lot of things: the innate superiority of "everyday" English, for example.  But mostly his is a holy name, invoked to discourage discussion, not initiate it.

Everyone has their favored euphemisms. There's nothing really wrong with "entitlements." "Taxpayers' investment" is every bit as Newspeak as "government spending." "Unelected legislators" is cute, but if taken seriously it's also Newspeak. I think we should stick with "corporate lobbyists," because everyone knows what it means. I'd expect it would be lobbyists who'd lobby for a new term that would be unfamiliar, and would allow them to pretend they're not lobbyists.

A commenter on the meme wrote, "I don't think people know that lobbyist actually write legislation. Which is why I like the term immensely." There's the rub: changing the label won't inform people about how Congress works. If only it were that simple.  I have the impression that many people think that the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare (itself a term which has reversed valence in the past four years), was written by President Obama himself, burning the midnight oil alone in the Oval Office, instead of by Big Pharma lobbyists.  There's no substitute for informing yourself, and no shortcut.

For parallel cases consider how "eugenics" was rechristened "sociobiology" and later as "evolutionary biology" in order to cover up their shared assumptions and history.  Or how the American "Department of War" was renamed the Department of Defense, when "Department of Aggression" would have been more precise.  The School of the Americas, the US-run training institute for military torture and police terror, was "by 2000 ... renamed "under increasing criticism in the United States for training students who later participated in undemocratic governments," so it was renamed to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.  Why, you can hardly hear the screams now.  The mercenary multinational Blackwater, having generated a lot of bad publicity for itself in the US and abroad, changed its name to Xe, but the bad smell still stuck to them, so they changed it again to Academi. This is known as rebranding: changing the name, redesigning the packaging, filing off the serial numbers, shoveling some quicklime over the bodies to try to kill the smell. 

I think about this personally because I've been through several changes of permissible labels in the gay community. (For that matter, any phrase compounded with "community" should be viewed with suspicion.) Many of my fellow Homo-Americans seem to believe that some words are inherently, innately better or more positive than others. But that's not true, because "gay" (which we chose for ourselves, against fierce opposition by many straights) became a pejorative in less than a decade.  Many younger gay people can't understand why their foreuncles chose such a nasty word for ourselves, though it's simple enough: "gay" wasn't always nasty.

Language changes, words change -- often radically. A true sign of intelligence is not using the "right" words, but thinking about how they're used and what that means. Putting too much emphasis on the words themselves is a way of not thinking.