Doublespeak

Original image by Jordan L'Hôte licensed under CC-SA-BY 3.0 via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1984JLH2.jpgThis started out being a “classic” repost and by the time I got done fixing the twenty-year-old writing, it was a new article.

Doublespeak is the art and subterfuge of using language to misdirect, misinform, or flat-out lie.  It often involves logical fallacy, intentional appeals to emotion over fact, and other crimes against critical thought.  It can take the form of euphemism, “soft” language, the use of words and phrasing that have a high emotional valence but low informational content to appeal to the baser instincts rather than the intellect.

As a huge fan of artists like George Carlin and Bill Hicks, the use of language and euphemism is simultaneously fascinating, horrifying, and hilarious to me.  The contortions people will go through to avoid acknowledging a simple reality are just insane.

A great example of this came up in my personal life while this article was in draft:  apparently it’s now fashionable to refer to yourself as “sober” if you’ve used “hard” (physically addictive) drugs in the past (e.g. opioids, amphetamines and methamphetamines, cocaine) but now you only smoke pot.

This is, of course, absolutely silly; a self-serving, dishonest, manipulative, and disingenuous word game played by addicts (and I am one so please spare me the complaints about your value judgements relating to that word) so they can pretend their addiction is somehow “different” from the addiction that has social stigma attached.  You’re not sober if you’re high – that’s not even an observation, it’s a tautology.  No amount of self-serving wordplay will change that – and in the context of addiction, it’s potentially fatal bit of self-deceit, due to the nature of addiction and what it does to the thought processes of the addict.

This underscores just one of the reasons doublespeak is so insidious and harmful; it helps people maintain self-destructive lies.  What amazes me is people craft these excuses for their spin and jive, and they’re all self-serving bovine excrement. “I don’t want to be stigmatized as an addict; so I just stigmatize everyone else who’s an addict and then reject that label for myself because I’m better than those people I’m unfairly stigmatizing in the very process of complaining about being unfairly stigmatized.”  And we’ve become so corrupted in our thinking that people don’t even hear themselves when they say this stuff.

Doublespeak is destructive in that it is essentially dishonest.  It can be, and often has been, used as a tool of manipulation by governments and other leaders and officials to attempt to avoid consequences of egregiously terrible actions by making them sound less terrible.  It is this particular aspect of doublespeak that will consume most of the rest of this article.

Each year, the National Council of Teachers of English announces the Doublespeak awards.  They describe the award as “an ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.”

Source material for this article includes the Book of Lists #3, and the Book of Lists of the 90’s, both from the editors of The People’s Almanac, with additional material provided by the NCTE website.

Without further ado, I present you with some shining examples of doublespeak.

  • President George Herbert Walker Bush – When the US invaded Panama in 1989 to bring Manuel Noriega to justice for allegations of drug trafficking and a host of other charges, Bush was positively bent over backwards trying to avoid using the word “invasion.” Instead, he “sent troops down to Panama.” He “deployed forces.” He “directed United States forces to execute…preplanned missions in Panama.”  Never once did we “invade.”

    During his campaign for President in 1988, Bush swore that there would be “no net loss of wetlands.” After he took office, he “clarified” his promise to really mean there would be no net wetlands loss “except where there is a high proportion of land which is wetlands.”

    In English, this means “except where the protection is needed most,” like the Alaskan Tundra, the Florida Everglades, and the Outer Banks and Great Dismal Swamp areas of North Carolina.

    After the first US-Iraq War in 1990 (as Bill Hicks pointed out so eloquently, even referring to this event as a “war” is an exercise in doublespeak), Bush proposed a Middle East disarmament initiative that was supposed to stop “the proliferation of conventional and unconventional weapons in the Middle East.” Less than a month after this proposal was made, the Bush administration announced plans to sell over $5 billion in new weapons to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.

    President George W. Bush – Ol’ Gee Dubya’s presence on the awards list should come as no surprise.  Indeed, I predicted it in the original (2002) version of this article:

    Although he hasn’t won one yet, I suspect that GHW’s little boy is gonna get a nomination himself, for declaring a war on terrorism and then announcing the sale of 50 brand new F-16’s to Israel, a country which is by any standard engaged in terrorist acts, covertly and overtly. Even more disconcerting is the fact that this author is questioning whether to delete this entry altogether, because one of the first acts in the “war on terrorism” was to make dissent against the actions of the US Government in this “war” a crime in and of itself.

    Bush II ended up winning twice by himself, and once with his entire cabinet.  Among the linguistic felonies NCTE selected:

    • In 2003, NCTE’s award centered around the heavy euphemism employed in the search for Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction (which, at the time of this writing 17 years later, still haven’t been found).  Use of phrasing like “a growing fleet of…aerial vehicles” and the assertion that “Iraq continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised” were complete fabrications, with these and many others intended to suggest that we actually knew the weapons were there but hadn’t found them yet, when the functional reality was that all we knew is that we had sold Iraq various materiel that could be used to create weapons, but never had any evidence they had done so.
      • I will bolster NCTE’s award citation by pointing out that one of the most egregious uses of doublespeak in the contest of the second Iraq War was Bush II’s repeated reference to Saddam Hussein “gassing his own people,” “a murderous tyrant who has already used chemical weapons to kill thousands of people,” and so forth, but never once mentioned that not only did we sell them all of the gear and intelligence they used for those attacks, it was Bush’s own Defense Secretary, Don Rumsfeld, who demanded Iraq be removed from the State Department’s list of terror sponsoring nations so we could sell that materiel to them, back in 1983 when he was acting as Special Envoy to the Middle East under Ronald Reagan.
      • Worth noting: to this day, most people either don’t know that we sold Hussein “dual-use material” including anthrax, botulism, tetanus, and c. perfringens, or they think it’s a wild-eyed conspiracy theory in spite of the reality that everything we know about it comes directly from US Senate Committee reports.
    • Bush’s 2006 award was given in recognition of his September 15, 2005 speech regarding Hurricane Katrina, in which he made lovely, flowery remarks about poverty and racial discrimination and how we needed to ‘confront this poverty” and “rise above the legacy of inequality…” a week after he signed an executive order allowing federal contractors rebuilding from Katrina to pay less than the prevailing wage, suspending a sixty-four year old law to do it.

    But wait, there’s more!

    7 Comments:

    1. Seems like that’s the nonsense the opposite party touts…and the uninformed whole heartedly believes!

    2. (Hey, this is the kind of stuff I was talking about liking and sharing more often 🙂 )

    3. This is a great piece*

      (hard to feel comfortable referring to a 3-page essay as a “piece”)

    4. “..it has never been more important for YOU (yes, YOU) to listen carefully to what you are told, and do your very best to understand what is actually being said..”

      Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to kick the habit of watching televised media that includes advertising. This has lead to a large amount of screaming at the TV box about the BS being passed off to those who don’t have the patience or understanding to decipher. I just hope one day, as a species, we learn better. I am not holding my breath..

    5. Some time ago, the informative British comedy panel show, QI (Quite Interesting) asked a question of their audience, who has read 1984? Quite a few people raised their hands but then dropped them the the host pointed out that 1984 was one of those books that everybody says they have read but actually hadn’t.

    6. See also Humpty Dumpty speak from “Through the looking glass”
      “A word means exactly …”
      You might enjoy investigating English Prime.

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