We’ve heard from George Payne on numerous occasions. George teaches philosophy at Finger Lakes Community College.
Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it.
The Nazi’s had a nasty habit of co-opting ordinary words in the German lexicon to intentionally mask the horror of the Shoah. Nazi language not only shielded reality from their victims, it also softened the truth of the Nazi involvement in mass murder. For example, the German word Sauberung literally meant “cleansing” but actually referred to the act of being sent through the death process (itself a form of euphemistic phraseology). The German word Liquidiert literally meant “liquidated,” but, in reality, it was a way of saying murdered or killed. And words like Badeanstalten and Leichenkeller converted descriptions of gas chambers and crematoriums into more gentle sounding “bath houses” and “corpse cellars.”
The Nazi’s were so proficient at hijacking the German language that they could even get away with calling a nationwide official governmental policy the Judenfrei gemacht, which essentially implied that whole areas in Europe should be “made free of Jews,” and that “special treatment” and “executive measures must be enacted” to carry out the task of “exterminating” them. To be “conveyed to special measure” was just another way of saying executed, but it was so much easier to kill — and accept killing — when that someone required an “appropriate treatment” and was viewed as a “problem in need of a solution.”
In fact, when asked how one of the most culturally advanced civilizations in human history could initiate and carry out such incomprehensible acts of sadism, Karl Adolf Eichmann (1906 – 1962), the man who headed the Gestapo Department IV B4 for Jewish Affairs, and the one who served as a self proclaimed ‘Jewish specialist’ and was the man responsible for keeping the trains rolling from all over Europe to death camps during the “Final Solution,” said it was easy: “We just changed the language.”
It should come as little surprise that the euphemistic manipulation of language is still practiced in the world today. Americans, in particular, employ a whole range of verbal lies to cover up the most unpardonable acts of both state sanctioned brutality and individual crimes of greed and malice. Terms such as “human trafficking” and “domestic violence” effectively shield us from the vivid reality of the assaults being “committed” against mainly women and children. Moreover, phrases such as “under-serviced,” “public housing,” and “urban youth, serve to segregate certain groups in our society by creating a separate class that must be referred to in coded talk that is implicitly racist yet socially conventional.
Euphemisms impact all facets of American society. In our food system, for instance, we have terms like “hot dog,” “industrial farm,” and “happy meat,” to hide the grotesque slaughter of sentient creatures in ungodly dungeons. It seems like we are entrapped in a system driven by the insatiable forces of capitalistic growth and exploitation. We try to grapple with epic problems facing the destruction of our planet, but use terms such as “global warming” and “climate change” to sedate and defuse people’s reaction to the emergency. By giving this crisis the most sterilized and non-urgent monikers possible, we can savor the pacifier known as the status quo and not need to change our lifestyles.
Militarily speaking, this practice is commonplace. Civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time are documented and reported to the press as being “collateral damage”; captured suspects of “terrorist activities” are not tortured with simulated drownings, they are “interrogated with enhanced measures”; and wars of aggression are called “Operations of Freedom.”
By recognizing our human tendency to rely on euphemisms to mask painful realities, we can begin to make conscious decisions about when we want to use them. Perhaps there are times when euphemisms can be experienced as a genuine expression of care and compassion. But until we are able to acknowledge our propensity to hide from the horrors of our own prejudices and complicity, our society — not unlike the Nazis in the twentieth century — will continue to justify evil with the clever manipulation of syllables. Going even further, until we come to terms with our self- inflicted reliance on euphemisms as a sanitizing balm to numb our awareness about everything from child molestation (“adult entertainment”) to targeted racism (“profiling”), we will continue to indulge our most hideous impulses and entertain our darkest fantasies.
In the words of Thomas Paine:
It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime.
Yet how exactly do we tell the truth about things we find so sickening that we can not put words to them? So what if we must lie a little to stay ahead or afloat in life? Isn’t that what gives us strength to go on? Isn’t that what protects us? Isn’t it the lie which gives us an excuse for not knowing what to do or what to say when it counts most? After all, what can be said about the fate of child soldiers, the impending mass extinction of Monarch butterflies, the conditions of imprisoned chickens, or something as gut wrenching as the refugee “migration” crisis in Syria. Aren’t these events beyond our comprehension let alone our control? Don’t words provide a reason not to get engulfed in the infinite sadness of the world? Don’t they provide us with an escape from this misery — perhaps the only escape we will ever be granted?
Although I find this enticing — somewhat like Neo refusing to take the red pill in The Matrix — there is too big a part of me which wants to address the world, to realize the world, to penetrate and become the world; and to know that my words do matter — that they even physically create matter! I need to know that my words matter because they are matter, and my words matter because they are a part of me. I need to know that my words become who I am, and because I am an open, communicating, messenger with purpose, my words matter! I need to know this because it is true. Not knowing this has almost destroyed my life by turning me into a bigoted, bullying, women hating, meat eating, atheistic, self-indulgent, petty thief and incorrigible prick.
With that said, to end social practices as seditious and irrational as “racial profiling,” we can not persist in calling it that. To be automatically grouped into a special category based on an arbitrary and socially constructed idea such as race, is to take away a person’s liberty. It is the most unconstitutional act one person can do to another person. It is a crime against humanity.
Likewise, making the term “drone strike” acceptable because it describes what happens on a battlefield, is not something I can go along with. A drone does not “strike.” A drone rips to shreds the intestines of human beings by incinerating them in a ballistic attack on their soul.
Furthermore, guns can not be “controlled” and mass killings of innocent people in restaurants, stadiums, airports, and festivals are not acts of “terrorism.” This is spiritual warfare against one’s brothers and sisters in the name of false idols. Markets are not “free,” gas is not “natural,” and prisons are not “correctional facilities.”
We really need to start getting our words right. Using them wrongly is literally killing us.
Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.