Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Undefining 'Torture'

In 1946, George Orwell observed that the "great enemy of clear language is insincerity." That explains the fog that enshrouds my brain when I hear President Bush declare that "the United States does not torture."

On its face, that statement is a blatant lie. Not only did and does the U.S. torture, the president is actually trying to get Congress to legalize the so-called "alternative set of procedures" that were all the rage at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the secret network of CIA prisons. So how can Bush stand up and say, essentially, that the sky is not blue? The insincerity is not in the declaration, but in the language itself.

A week or so ago Andrew Sullivan drew an important connection: the United States does not torture in the same sense that Bill Clinton did not have sexual relations with that woman.
Bush's statement is true in his own private universe, and the criterion of his version of truth depends entirely on what the meaning of the word "torture" is.... Both statements are semantic evasions to avoid a direct lie. Each man is using a private dictionary to redefine a word otherwise clear to any other rational person.
Since we're playing fast and loose with language, I think I'll get into the game. I would like to propose a new word to describe these terms that populate the private dictionaries of the likes of Bush and Clinton.
nihilogism — n. 1. a word used in such a way as to deliberately undermine, negate or destroy its traditional meaning 2. A new word or phrase designed specifically to drive another word or phrase from the lexicon. From Latin nihil- "nothing" + logos "word"
Bush is deliberately trying to redefine the word "torture" so that it no longer connotes things like mock drownings, staged executions and induced hypothermia. What's worse, he's trying to give that de-clawed definition the force of law. The same principle was at work when the Schmidt Report concluded that the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo was "humane" in mid-2005.

A nihilogism is one step beyond a euphemism. While the latter seeks to disguise the ugliness of reality with a word or phrase that sounds nicer (it comes from the Greek for "good speech"), the former aims to turn reality entirely on its head. It's no coincidence that the natural habitat of the nihilogism is political speech and writing, which, even in Orwell's time, consisted of little more than the "defence of the indefensible".

The nihilogism is nothing new, but it has become prevalent enough to merit a neologism of its own. You can't sit through a political debate nowadays without hearing that favorite bipartisan nihilogism—"working families"—uttered at least a dozen times. It's possible to argue that "working families" is merely a euphemism for the pinko-commie "working class", but it has so completely subverted the latter's role in all but the most fringe political discourse as to have effectively killed it. "Working families" also embodies a core characteristic of the nihilogism: it's utter nonsense. Unless the kids are off working down at the mill or in Kathy Lee's sweatshop, that is.

As Orwell was acutely aware, language is nothing to trifle with. An unchecked nihilogism, like President Bush's use of "torture", threatens first to change the way we talk about the issue, and, ultimately, the way we think about it. Accepting the president's linguistic violence would do much more that just cheapen the language. It would amount to selling out one of the quintessential American values that make this country great. And no amount of security—real or imagined—is worth that.

"Political language," wrote Orwell, "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind." The nihilogism is a powerful tool in the arsenal of the enemies of truth and honesty. The degree to which we're willing to fight for the legacy of America is the degree to which we deserve to inherit it.
Listed on BlogShares