Tortured language

On the most recent Last Week Tonight, the main topic was torture. Oliver showed a clip of Dick Cheney describing “successful” torture, which he described as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” This laughable euphemism reminded me of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” in which he notes (bolding added by me for emphasis):

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Our government, and any human being with even a modicum of empathy, knows that torture is indefensible. But our government also knows that language is a beautiful ally in the battle against our nagging conscience. If we don’t want to confront the reality of what we do, we can find a word that safely tucks that reality away. We are masters of deception, and we have built systems of communication that favor such lies. This is an easy practice to see on a political scale, but we can’t pretend that we don’t adopt the same duplicitous policy for personal matters. Isn’t it fair, albeit disheartening, to claim that self-deception is at the core of identity formation, grounded as that formation is in woefully (perhaps purposefully) inaccurate self-projection?

Regardless of how guilty we are in our personal bubbles, what of the societal bubble that we inflate with such preposterous word-smithing? Why do we let our elected leaders cook up such indigestible rubbish? Enhanced interrogation techniques? That sounds like an upper-level graduate course. Which, as Orwell unpacked, is the perfect way to make it so your audience doesn’t call up mental pictures of torture. As John Oliver magnified, one such image is rectal rehydration, which, if you’re not familiar with the “technique,” is a euphemism in itself.

In the end, I can only lament this use of language through the use of language. No doubt I’ve just expressed my own share of lies in the process of trying to expose others. Where there be truth, there is only a lie in disguise…


  1. dasfuller

    How do…how do you do that? How do you always somehow manage to bring whatever bad cultural/societal thing back to yourself like that? What sort of glass cage of shame are you living in?

    1. Luigus (Post author)

      It’s unmitigated self-centeredness more than shame, I think. If I relate everything back to me, suddenly my life has more meaning!

      I actually thought I avoided self-implication fairly well until the end. Cop-out?

      1. dasfuller

        I..I don’t even know where to start. Actually, I do: at Chipotle for lunch on Friday. Like I said before, we are going to eat so many burritos when you get here Thursday.


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