“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”--George Orwell, Politics and the English LanguageAs Orwell, Carlin, and other people who aren’t even named George have observed, controlling language is the first step to controlling thought. That’s because, in addition to their linguistic meanings, most words also include a lot of cultural baggage that gives them an emotional meaning. Phrases that use loaded language influence how people react to and think about the idea being expressed, often without them even realizing it.
In some cases, the hidden meaning of this kind of constructed language is so blatant that nobody falls for it. The abortion debate provides a good example: those who support abortion rights frame them in terms of the rights of the mother and call themselves “pro-choice,” while those who oppose abortion frame the issue in terms of the rights of the unborn fetus and refer to themselves as “pro-life.” Despite the false dichotomy established by each of these terms, the obvious self-labeling makes the terms appropriate for use by those who wish to maintain some level of neutrality. In fact, the use of any other name for either group (whether it’s something as mild as “anti-choice” or as evocative as “baby killer”) is usually a good indication that the person applying the label has chosen a side in the debate.
Unfortunately, the best kind of loaded language is subtle enough that repetition and laziness allow it attain everyday usage. When this happens, those who disagree with the idea that the loaded phrase is expressing find themselves at a disadvantage. The very act of using such language lends credibility to the emotional argument made by those who invented the euphemism. Below are a few examples of expressions that “people who should know better” have allowed to enter common usage and, by doing so, corrupt our thoughts about the ideas that they express.
“Big Government” is code for “the nanny state” and is used to describe the intrusive, paternalistic government that Liberals supposedly want to bring into existence. The phrase is usually used to describe the end goal of anyone who wants the government to take action that the presumably anti-Big Government speaker disagrees with. Why anyone, regardless of political persuasion, would want such a shambling bureaucracy is never addressed, nor is that fact that the power and reach of government has historically increased more under Republican administrations than Democratic ones. Remember, after all, that the GOP are strong proponents of both the security state and the idea that government should have a say about who you choose to fuck. In reality, a lot of the complexity of government, especially when it comes to regulations and corporate law, is at the behest of corporate lobbyists, who know it’s easier to lawyer your way around a complicated law than a simple one.
The Death Tax
The phrase “death tax” was invented by Frank Luntz, a conservative consultant and pollster who has all the linguistic savvy of George Carlin or Lenny Bruce, but uses his powers for evil. The death tax used to be called the “estate tax,” which gave the (correct) impression that the tax only applied to large inheritances. In 2001, the estate tax, which was then 55%, was only paid by those who inherited over $675,000. By calling it a “death tax” and implying that it applied to everyone who took a dirt nap, the Bush administration was able to scare the shit out of people who probably wouldn’t leave much behind (and certainly not enough to qualify for the tax) in the first place. As a result the tax was eliminated on estates worth less than $3.5 million, and the tax rate itself dropped to 35%. Barack Obama, apparently in an attempt to prove that he loves the rich even more than Dubya, later raised the exemption to $5 million.
This term is most often applied to Medicare, food stamps, and other programs that form the social safety net, though a few pundits use it to describe things as fundamental as education and clean drinking water. Linguistically, this usage makes perfect sense. After all, an entitlement is something you deserve, either because you’ve earned it or because it’s a fundamental human right. In this case, the pundits have taken a previously neutral word and corrupted its meaning by highlighting its association with phrases like “entitlement issues” or “sense of entitlement.” Ironically enough, prior to being co-opted by the right to describe welfare and Medicare recipients, these phrases were most commonly used by service industry workers to describe the kind of well-off douchebag who feels he’s entitled to special treatment because of his money, power, or connections.
During the 2004 presidential election, the Bush campaign pointed out that Kerry was for the war in Iraq before he was against it. In the case of Obamacare, the same sentiment applies to many of the Republicans who voted against Obama’s health care reforms. During the Clinton administration, a conservative think tank called The Heritage Foundation proposed a plan almost identical to the inefficient, corporate-friendly Affordable Care Act as an alternative to Hillary Clinton’s suggestions for meaningful health care reform. Back then, many of the same Congress members who would later vote against the ACA were solidly behind the almost-identical Heritage plan. The name “Obamacare,” in addition to implying that the act is some sort of egomaniacal self-indulgence on the part of the President, invites people to attribute their own negative feelings about Obama (most often relating to his “otherness”) to the plan itself.
There are, of course, many more examples of doublespeak winding their way through our political conversations. Legitimized tax evasion is called “offshoring,” which makes it sounds like the money’s having a nice, well-deserved vacation; the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision made it acceptable to refer to bribes as “Free Speech”; and our policy of keeping for-profit prisons in business by locking up drug addicts who should be receiving medical attention gets the almost heroic-sounding “Drug War” label. Euphemisms like these, when used consistently over time, can make it easy to forget what the words are really describing. To keep this from happening, pay attention to new phrases introduced to express old ideas and new connotations connected to tried-and-true labels. When you notice this happening, ask yourself what message the new phrasing is trying to convey. Nine times out of ten, you’ll find some form of intellectual dishonesty behind the change in vocabulary.