Using and Promoting Change of Language to Make the Objectionable Acceptable

Last week, I happened to be watching The Ed Show on MSNBC.  Thankfully, the host – who I think is trying to be a liberal imitation of Sean Hannity – was on vacation.  Christopher Hayes, Washington editor of  The Nation, was subbing for the regular host.

I was kind of paying half-attention, getting ready for a road trip the next day, when my attention focused sharply during the start of a commentary by Hayes (starts about halfway through the transcript of the show):

Imagine for a moment our country elected a bunch of people who thought that rape should be legal.  Now, these pro-rape politicians knew that simply coming out and proposing that we legalize rape would be toxic and odious and rightly inspire moral revulsion among the populace.  So they say this instead.  Look, we don‘t support rape, but we want to legalize unilateral physical intimacy.  And after they say that, they set out to make sure that no one ever called rape, rape but instead in every instance called it unilateral physical intimacy.

It‘s pretty clear that if supposedly objective news sources, say, for instance “The New York Times”, adopted that same language, they would be granting the pro-rape camp a monumental political victory.  Unilateral physical intimacy is not a neutral phrase in our little thought experiment.  It is propaganda, as ideologically phrased as the term welfare queen or Islamo-fascist.

Well, the same is true for the pro-torture euphemism enhanced interrogation techniques.

This immediately reminded me of Conflation and Con Job‘s (aka Compassion & Choices) recent maneuvers to get the Connecticut Superior Court to recognize the term “aid in dying” as separate and distinct from “assisted suicide.” This was just the highest profile tactic in a long-term campaign by C&C to replace the term “assisted suicide” with “aid in dying.”  More commonly, the campaign is carried out with the same talking points in op-eds written by C&C members, like this one that appeared in the July 3 edition of the Bozemon Daily Chronicle.

Why is it important to them?  Why spend so much effort and energy on a simple phrase?

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, attended the World Federation of Right to Die Societies Conference in Toronto in 2006.  Here is what he says about what he learned at a session conducted by C&C:

One of the speakers at that conference spoke about the focus groups and polling data that had been done by Compassion & Choices. This data found that the term “Aid in Dying” improved the acceptance of the political agenda of their group by 15% over the term assisted suicide. The speaker explained that once the public accepted the term “Aid in Dying” they would be able to win the debate in the public square. The same speaker also explained how the terms assisted death and assisted dying were better than assisted suicide, but then the speaker strongly advised the participants of the conference to stop using the term assisted suicide and always use the term “aid in dying.” (emphasis added.)
The term “aid in dying” is a type of soft euphemism. Everyone wants aid in dying, whether that be pain control, symptom management, good care, but most people have no intention of dying by assisted suicide. But if you ask a person, do you support aid in dying, they will more likely say YES, without ever thinking that they are supporting assisted suicide.
The speaker then explained how Compassion & Choices had tried to get the Editorial Boards of the newspapers in California,   where an assisted suicide bill had been presented, to change their language use from assisted suicide to “aid in dying”. The speaker also explained how they were working to get professional organizations to adopt the term “aid in dying”.

Returning now – and hoping people follow me – to the commentary by Christopher Hayes.  He went on to relate the findings of a recent study of major newspapers and the terms used to describe “waterboarding” in years before the Bush administration and what terms were used during the Bush years:

The results are eye opening.  From the 1930s to the last decade, “The New York Times” called or characterized waterboarding as torture 82 percent of the time.  But from 2002 to 2008, that number dropped to 1 percent of the time.  From 82 percent to 1 percent.

“The Los Angeles Times” called or characterized waterboarding as torture 96 percent of the time before the last decade, and after 2002, it dropped to 5 percent.  And the number of times “USA Today” called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture, zero.

Of course, private organizations can influence terminology to affect public attitudes as well, although that wasn’t the subject of Hayes’ commentary that night.  But I think these words apply to the consequences of C&C winning this war in the same way that the efforts to define away “torture” do:

The phrase “enhanced interrogation technique” was designed from the beginning to defuse our moral circuitry.  It‘s the job of the independent press to trigger our moral alarms.  “The New York Times” and “L.A. Times”” failed this basic test of duty and they could begin to atone now with a simple, clear policy.  Just call torture what it is.

I would only add that this applies equally to “aid in dying” and that any public policy or professional organization that embraces the term has also failed its basic duty to the public and to society.  –Stephen Drake

Addendum July 26, 2014: At this juncture, i would add the terms “assisted death” and “hastened death” as relevant to the post above.  Additionally, I changed the word “diffuse” and replaced it with “defuse” – I believe that the latter term was the one Hayes actually used and it makes more sense in context.

3 thoughts on “Using and Promoting Change of Language to Make the Objectionable Acceptable

  1. I ran up against this with the BBC, referring to the euthanasia of someone who was not even physically ill as them being “helped to die”: When I complained they merely insisted that they take their neutrality very seriously and were not showing bias. I wouldn’t have complained had it been in the usual context of talking about a terminally ill person, I don’t particularly like it but I also understand the reasoning behind it, but in this case it was so patently ridiculous and it’s infuriating that they couldn’t see how their choice of words twisted things. I’m sure they honestly believe they were just being sensitive!

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