The deep interplay between language and power blurs the distinction between the two. To control how something is spoken about is to control how something is perceived.
As with any source of power, such as money, drugs and the capacity to really fuck you up, language has been heavily politicized.
The government of every nation is guilty to a greater and lesser extent of manipulating public perception through language, but nowhere in the world would more inspire George Orwell to sequelize 1984 than right here in the U.S. of A.
In the first months of the Obama administration, a disquieting trend has emerged: wrapping up ugly political truths in shiny new language to bury or beautify the negative connotations and public opinion they carry.
Perhaps most notable is the renaming of the “War on Terror” to “Overseas Contingency Operation.” No joke. The “OCO“ is the official new title of the Middle East carnage that was the ideological mainstay of Bush foreign policy. The “War on Terror“ was itself an abuse of language to power, using words that create an absolutist and cavalier mode of thinking.
To help me decipher the complex illusion of semantics and political doublespeak we’ve been subjected to lately, I enlisted the help of UC Davis communication professor John Theobald.
First up: the “War on Terror.“
“It created this salivating kind of response to go in and kick ass,” he said. “It understates what we’re involved in the Middle East – to dismiss fanatics as terrorists is to miss the point.“
By contrast, the “Overseas Contingency Operation“ is bamboozlingly bureaucratic, pushing out the red-toothed fervor of “War“ in favor of gray, wordy and forgettable phraseology.
Even Theobald was a bit confounded. “I don’t know the intent or effect of renaming,” he said, “but it substitutes a language of policing for military invention.“
Soldiers and civilians keep on dying just the same though. Obama is at present promising an upscale of troop commitment in Afghanistan that puts the Iraq “surge“ to shame, while at the same time increasing remote bombing of Pakistan by joystick-twiddling drone pilots (and giving the poor bastards a whole new kind of PTSD). And those are just the campaigns we know about.
You’ve assuredly heard about “toxic assets,“ those bad loans and loan-based financial products that wrecked the New York Stock Exchange. See, when the housing bubble collapsed, it made “toxic“-holding fraudulent creditors realize that lies lose their value when the lights come on. Fortunately, the Obama administration has sanitized this language, replacing “toxic assets” with the aristocratic “legacy assets.“
Speaking Obamese, predatory lenders and securities/derivatives movers played the game wrong, but rather than “toxifying“ the economic environment, they merely left behind a “legacy” … of costly, costly fraud.
“This happens all the time in marketing,” Theobald said. “During the 1990 to 2006 housing bubble, it was a good time to buy. Now, with falling prices, it’s still a good time to buy.“
Again, words were used to put a silver lining around something vile – and erect a barrier of misunderstanding between the public and the government.
Tweaking public opinion with language is no new trick for the Obama PR team. Barrages of “hope” and “change“ dressed up Obama’s every move in Galahad’s white armor and supportive media entities weren’t hesitant to use the word “Messiah.“ These words are intensely subjective and this buzz-word sloganeering dropped psychological seeds and led the voting public to fill in the gaps.
And it goes on and on.
“‘Green solutions‘ refer to corn ethanol – an alternative to fossil fuels that has been panned by everyone but politicians and corn farmers,” Theobald said.
The plan is impossible due to issues of food prices, waste products and, most importantly, the inability to supplant demand, a situation Theobald described as “a complete boondoggle.“
“Ethanol takes just about as mush fossil fuel energy to produce and yields a lousy fuel relative to gas,” he said.
Neither green nor a solution, but boy does it sound good.
“Clean cars“ are just as mislabled, Theobald said. “Calling something a ‘clean car‘ creates these perceptions that are kind of laughable. Is it running on air?”
“Accountability“ means letting the outgoing administration get away with burning the Constitution, just like every other executive offender. Maybe the next guy will be accountable.
“Socialism“ creates the false image of an absolute anti-American who would send this country spiraling into shortage and strife through nationalization of product. This is in opposition to the humanistic goals that socialism is actually based on and skirts the truth – that we’re already experiencing the worst side of socialism through the bailout of failing banks and industries. Privatize the benefits, socialize the losses. The people who benefit from this scheme are numerically so few it’s mathematically sound to say they don’t exist. Everyone loses!
“Tax reform“ means letting the Bush tax cuts, obscene concessions to the wealthiest 1 percent, expire back to their Clintonian levels. What change!
The linguistic differences between Bush and Obama reveal the different styles of control the two employ. Bush wanted you to cower dumbfounded at the feet of a cowboy, whereas Obama would prefer you to slog confusedly on in service to a well-dressed bore who knows a ton more than you.
When a public’s language is continually redefined to further private ends, the intended result is essentially an illiterate public – a public only fluent in the language of the Party’s choosing. To penetrate through the linguistic haze, Americans need to be awake, skeptical and discerning. “The defense for doublespeak is to know the facts,” Theobald said. “We need to know what underlies the story.” Don’t let yourself be told in what language to object. Observe, then define.
Some say the totalitarian culture of 1984 is overdue. I say it’s just hiding behind the words.
CHEYA CARY wracked his brain to make a reference to the Junior Anti-Sex League, but it just didn’t happen. Send your dystopian laments to email@example.com.