Why Does Language Matter?

My thoughts on the semantic battles that prevent us from discussing the torture issue in clear language.

All of the Cheney-approved terms for torture share one thing: they implicitly state that it works. The adjectives in ‘enhanced interrogation’ ‘brutal questioning’ and ‘harsh interrogation’ modify interrogation and questioning. These terms all imply that our torture abusive techniques deserve to be considered alongside other information-gathering techniques that America regularly employs.

Contrariwise, excepting vulnerable minds who watch too much of Joel Surnow’s torture porn 24, even children who grew up in the Bush years know that torture is not just criminal but stupid. No government that tried what we did ever got anything but what its torturers asked for. Sometimes that corresponded with reality, more often it did not.

Although I recognize that calling torture ‘torture’ makes the question of whether to prosecute rather more obvious, Media outlets like New York Times and NPR are not staking some neutral middle ground when they strictly uses whatever language Cheney approves this week. In fact they grant the pro-torture fringe a key victory that it clearly does not deserve. Whether you call it torture or afternoon tea, we could have won more useful intelligence scoops by typing the questions into Ask.com.

This harsh, one could say tortured abuse of the English language must be especially galling for the professionals at Military Intelligence and the FBI who perform actual interrogations and questioning with a professionalism that, at one time, set a standard for the world.






42 replies
  1. 1
    someguy says:

    a professionalism that, at one time, set a standard for the world.

    Central American death squads, Contras and surveillance of peace groups. Church Committee. VietNam. Bay of Pigs. Dominican Republic. Tampering the Australian elections. Surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King. Wiretapping JFK. Complicity in the McCarthy hearings. The internment of Japanese Americans. The Comstocks. The Palmer raids.

    Yeah, our federal law enforcement and intel agencies have a long history of setting the standards alright…

  2. 2
    Cat Lady says:

    Orwell thought he was giving us a cautionary tale, not a roadmap.

  3. 3
    El Cid says:

    “Freedom fighters.” “Hard liners.” “Free trade supporters.” “Protectionists.” “Banking modernization.” “Freeing up investment.” Things are always discussed in the establishment news media in terms preferred by the establishment, with definitions and applications also to their preferences.

  4. 4

    It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the people who have all but built a religion around the passive voice (“Mistakes were made”) are playing this game. The best gloss I can put on it is it shows a defensive posture. Throw up some confusing terms and hide behind them. Get people arguing over the terms, not the actions. It might work, for a while. But then there are those pesky people who a) Say, no, it’s really torture, and b) Can’t be dismissed as DFHs.

    Contrariwise, excepting vulnerable minds who watch too much of Joel Surnow’s torture porn 24, even children who grew up in the Bush years know that torture is not just criminal but stupid.

    I’ve never seen the show but I thought things still got blowed up even though Jack Bauer ran around working people over with a pair of pliers and a rubber hose.

  5. 5
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    On a related note, Charles Krauthammer today responds to Dan Froomkin who said that the “ticking time bomb” scenario only exists on TV and in the mind of those obsessed with it. To which Krauthammer responded with the rebuttal that Froomkin was “stupid”.

    Trying to dazzle us with sophisticated verbiage again, eh Charles? Who can argue with that level of rhetoric?

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/.....03603.html

  6. 6
    SGEW says:

    What I believe to be the key point, via heavy editing:

    [C]alling torture ‘torture’ makes the question of whether to prosecute [legally obligatory]… [therefore, not calling torture ‘torture’] grant[s] the pro-torture [government officials] [the] key victory [of not being criminally prosecuted.]

    NPR and the NYT are trying to sit on the fence over whether or not we should prosecute the previous administration for war crimes. This editorial ambivalence would be much more difficult to sustain should they choose to call a crime a ‘crime.’

    Also, as far as the political advantage of the torture of language goes, just link to Orwell and be done with it.

  7. 7
    Dennis-SGMM says:

    OT: James Dobson Gives Up
    From Dobson’s April 14th radio show, discussing the recently passed hate crimes legislation:

    I want to tell you up front that we’re not going to ask you to do anything, to make a phone call or to write a letter or anything.
    There is nothing you can do at this time about what is taking place because there is simply no limit to what the left can do at this time. Anything they want, they get and so we can’t stop them.
    We tried with [Health and Human Services Secretary] Kathleen Sebelius and sent thousands of phone calls and emails to the Senate and they didn’t pay any attention to it because they don’t have to. And so what you can do is pray, pray for this great nation… As I see it, there is no other answer. There’s no other answer, short term.

    Dobson characterized the hate crimes bill as “the utter evil that’s coming out of the United States Congress.”
    Dobson had promised in February to go away but apparently the hate crimes legislation caused the old god-botherer to go mad and then to go public once more. From a video released earlier this month:

    “As I’m recording this video greeting, there’s a so-called hate crimes bill that’s working its way through the congress that contains no adequate safeguards to protect the preaching of God’s word. Because the liberals in Congress would not define sexual orientation, we have to assume that protection under the law will be extended to the 30 sexual disorders identified as such by the American Psychiatric Association. Let me identify some of them: bisexuality, exhibitionism, fetishism, incest, necrophilia, pedophilia, prostitution, sexual masochism, voyeurism, and bestiality. Those are just a few. And I have to ask, have we gone completely mad?”

    “We,” Dr. Dobson?

  8. 8
    Aaron says:

    I feel I should make the obligatory George Carlin reference as well.

    The ability of language to frame a debate is well-known. Well known enough, in fact, that media outlets of all stripe should be well aware of what they are doing when they sanitize terms.

  9. 9
    WereBear says:

    Of course they want to sanitize the terms.

    Finding somebody’s spouse in the freezer and calling it a “domestic dispute” is merely understatement, not lying!

  10. 10
    Napoleon says:

    @El Cid:

    Things are always discussed in the establishment news media in terms preferred by the establishment, with definitions and applications also to their preferences.

    Here is a great example of this in the last few days from Dean Baker where he points out that when it comes to Social Security benefits the WaPo calls someone making $60k wealthy, but when it came to Obama letting the Bush tax cuts expire suddenly $500k is not wealthy.

    http://www.prospect.org/csnc/b.....nes_wealth

  11. 11

    I listened to All Things Considered last night and Melissa Bloch was driving nuts with the “so-called ehanched interrogation techniques, that include waterboarding which many consider torture” when introducing a piece by David Welna. Of course, he never used the word ‘torture’ in his report. I just wonder how it would be reported if they were American soldiers? For that matter I wonder what it would be called if this done to a suspect accused of a crime hear in the U.S.

    It really is sad that even NPR newcasters parse language like they just finished a talking points briefing with Karl Rove.

  12. 12
    Zifnab says:

    No government that tried what we did ever got anything but what its torturers asked for. Sometimes that corresponded with reality, more often it did not.

    And that is kinda the point.

    If you look at the run up to the Iraq War, when Colin Powell was parading pictures of roving trucks and calling them mobile chemical weapons factories or when Bush repeatedly insisted that Iraq had secret WMDs that only his intelligence division could find or when Nigerian Yellowcake turned out to be bullshit or when Curveball turned out to be bullshit or when Cheney got up again and again to proclaim the Iraq-Al Qaida connection…

    These people weren’t interested in gathering intel. They were interested in finding one more excuse for doing what they were planning to do anyway.

    Torture, under the Bush Administration, served exactly the purpose it has always served, from Torquemanda to the Kamar Rush(sp) – to extract false confessions and extend the police state.

  13. 13
    Phaedrus says:

    I’ve been doing this mental trick of replacing the word torture with rape. This brings forth the proper internal state of loathing and disgust for the action that should be there and has been lost due to the “civilized” debate around it.

  14. 14
    Rosali says:

    Add “terrorist surveillance program” to the list. Calling it the TSP just lets BushCo frame the debate their way. Call it what it really is- an illegal warrantless wiretap program. How do they know that everyone caught on the wire is a terrorist? They don’t. So it’s really a “wiretap on people who may be terrorists or may be innocent but we have to listen in to their conversations to find out” program. By some accounts, they had listen to tens of thousands of people. Are they all terrorists?

    Also, the name TSP focuses on the foreign calls but we now know that there were taps on purely domestic calls. Maybe we should start calling it the Fuck FISA program.

  15. 15
    El Cid says:

    @Napoleon: I hate these people so much.

  16. 16
    Dennis-SGMM says:

    This battle started to turn against us back in the Vietnam era when the media wholeheartedly adopted the term “collateral damage” for the killing and wounding of noncombatants. The media loves these euphemisms because their use makes the media feel that they’re being unbiased by eschewing more emotionally charged (And accurate) language. Pols love the euphemisms because the lack of robust, meaningful language in the media means that it’s all the easier for them to avoid robust, meaningful debate.

  17. 17
    bago says:

    The argument that convinced my wingnut mom that waterboarding was torture (when she inevitably brought up the SERE argument) was rape.

    What’s the difference between SERE and Torture? Consent.
    What’s the difference between sex and rape? Consent.

    But it was effective? Rape.

    Note, this argument is not as effective with men.

  18. 18
    kay says:

    @Phaedrus:

    It’s not a bad analogy. The two acts share commonality in one important way. Both torture and rape can be achieved without leaving an exterior mark, waterboarding is a good example, so there’s limited ability to collect physical evidence.

  19. 19
    burnspbesq says:

    @The Grand Panjandrum:

    And have you noticed that the commentators on ATC and Morning Edition never say “President Obama.” It’s always “Mister Obama.” Subtle disrespect and delegitimization. Niiiiiiiiice.

  20. 20
    Another Luke says:

    Interested in terrible language use and its impact on politics and deception (or just want to write better)? Give Orwell’s short essay, Politics and the English Language, a read. Here’s the link.

    “The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot”

  21. 21
    geemoney says:

    Maybe slightly OT, but Errol Morris has a nice couple of posts about this kind of thing on his blog at the NYT. He was mostly talking about the use of images, and how the tags attached to them influence and help shape the “debate”.

    Since I am too lazy to look up the posts, here is a link to his blog.

  22. 22
    Aaron says:

    @Another Luke:

    I have read “Politics and English Language” a lot, it is one of my favorite essays ever. Also, it is a quick read and well worth 5 minutes :-)

  23. 23
    J says:

    Tim F. is exactly right, and makes a very important point, when he says that the press isn’t being, as it likes to pretend, scrupulously neutral when it employs the latest Cheney-approved euphemism or mealy mouthed evasion, it’s abdicating its responsibility by conceding the right to falsify reality to the torturers. It would be an enormous step in the direction of honesty if the gentlemen of the press (yes I know there not all men, mean to allude to a line in His Girl Friday) were willing to say and to write ‘so-called enhanced interrogation techniques’ or ‘so-called harsh interrogations’ or whatever.

  24. 24

    @Dennis-SGMM:

    Why would a man who supposedly preaches Jesus be against Hate Crimes legislation?

    Hmmmm! I’m so glad the FSM doesn’t have ears.

    Dobson had promised in February to go away but apparently the hate crimes legislation caused the old god-botherer to go mad and then to go public once more.

    Has anyone ever seen Dobson and Cheney both in the same room at the same time? Hmmmm!

  25. 25
    Bob UK says:

    Something I wonder in relation to the ‘waterboarding isn’t torture’ statement, is if you asked a Rethug :

    If the CIA can use waterboarding as an ‘interrogation technique’, can therefore the FBI use them against extremists ?
    What about the Secret Service in the protection of Americas most important man : POTUS ?
    If the Secret Service had used these ‘interrogation techniques’ in defence of Bush after 9/11 would you have defended them?

    Bearing in mind that Obama is now President, and you are giving him these powers.

  26. 26
    HyperIon says:

    dup post below

  27. 27
    HyperIon says:

    TimF. wrote:

    even children who grew up in the Bush years know that torture is not just criminal but stupid.

    link?
    or poll results?
    otherwise, unsupported allegation.
    that is, assuming facts not in evidence.
    because Language Matters.

  28. 28
    Ecks says:

    I’ve been doing this mental trick of replacing the word torture with rape.

    You mean harsh love making. Please, we’re trying to have a serious conversation here, and using loaded words for enhanced love making just proves that you are shrill and biased.

  29. 29
    asiangrrlMN says:

    @Dennis-SGMM: And of course, I have to point out that recently, the APA released a study that claimed bisexuality was not a phase in women.

    And, of course, Mr. Dobson’s including bisexuality on that list in the first damn place is patently false. Read the first point here.

    I am shocked and appalled that a deeply religious man such as Mr. Dobson would lie to further his political agenda. Shocked, I tell ya!

  30. 30
    asiangrrlMN says:

    Stupid moderation.

    As for the use or non-use of the word torture, it has been amusing to watch the GOP try to say what we did was not torture, but that Nancy Pelosi was informed about it, so if it was torture, it’s her fault. Man, do they hate her.

    Just like I hate the editing feature here when it tells me I can’t edit my own post.

  31. 31
    asiangrrlMN says:

    The sad thing about the rape analogy is that there are still men who believe no means yes and that women need to be convinced that they need sex. So, that analogy probably wouldn’t work for them, anyway.

  32. 32
    Ecks says:

    @asiangrrlMN: troof.

    Also note that when they bring out “experts” to say that the torture worked, those “experts” all seem to be people in the CIA – i.e., the people who did the actual torturing and are the ones who stand to be punished (and have professional careers railroaded) should the torture be publicly called torture.

    That’s like putting someone on trial for murder, and letting the defendant’s lawyer say “actually this case is just about guided life rearrangement.” And everyone else saying “oh yes, good point. Guided life rearrangement. And he should know, because he’s working for the guy who was there and did it!”

  33. 33
    The Cat Who Would Be Tunch says:

    @SGEW:

    NPR and the NYT are trying to sit on the fence over whether or not we should prosecute the previous administration for war crimes. This editorial ambivalence would be much more difficult to sustain should they choose to call a crime a ‘crime.’

    And this has been pissing me off to no end. Since when did NPR and NYT (or any other media outlet for that matter) have the authority to redefine definitions of words and what constitutes a crime? I thought that was the job of the judiciary. The next time I hear a story about a bank robbery, I want the media to refer to the incident as an alleged act of “extreme financial self-enrichment”. Because calling it a “robbery” would make it a criminal act and thus open for prosecution. Just like the torture advocates say when they try to justify their position, the robber may have been poor and resorted to robbery simply to save his/her family. Why can’t we just keep on walking, considering the noble intentions of the robber?

    What a joke.

  34. 34
    asiangrrlMN says:

    @Ecks: Yup, you got it. And the news outlets wonder why they are becoming less and less relevant. I’ve heard this joke told in several ways, but it’s like someone who’s robbed a bank saying, “Yes, I robbed the bank, but look at all the bills I paid!” Or, “I didn’t rob the bank, I was just exercising extreme money-borrowing techniques.”

    @The Cat Who Would Be Tunch: Right on. They say they are trying to be neutral, but waterboarding and some of the other shit has been defined, by law, as torture for quite a few years now.

  35. 35
    omen says:

    i caught a rightwing pundit last night describe it as “justifiable” torture.

    justifiable? ha, good luck with that.

    according to the daniel moynihan rule, once the opposition starts employing your semantics, you’ve won the argument.

  36. 36
    Interrobang says:

    The right wing is masterful at semantic pollution. They’ve managed to turn “free speech” into meaning “entitled speech,” “liberal” into meaning “socialist” and “torture” into meaning “enhanced interrogation.” The name of their political movement really ought to be the National Euphemists.

  37. 37
    Joel says:

    “24” just makes me angry.

  38. 38
    HyperIon says:

    @omen:

    justifiable? ha, good luck with that.

    Read Krauthammer today in WaPo.
    He just comes right out and says it.
    He uses a really stupid example of a so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario but it works for him. he’s not backing down.

  39. 39
    omen says:

    @HyperIon:

    hegemon had a breakdown of that:

    http://rising-hegemon.blogspot.....nster.html

    did neocons take notes on how to emulate hitler?

  40. 40
    Molly says:

    I zipped this off to NPR after their noon news broadcast:

    “On the Friday noon news lead-in to Here and Now, referring to waterboarding, the on-air announcer defined it as, “what critics call torture.” Only critics? How about “what international law calls torture, what the Geneva Conventions call torture, what the U.S. government has prosecuted as torture . . .”
    “Has NPR entered the world of doublespeak? Congratulations on buying into the Republican world view.
    “I expect if, in the future, an American is captured and waterboarded by some hostile group or government, you will not say s/he has been tortured. After all, if we do it, it must be OK.”

    No response yet . . .

  41. 41
    ldunham says:

    Yes the control of language is the forgone strategy which has been in place since the beginnings of the torture debate (why else the elusive ”we don’t torture!). Ran across this interesting essay on torture and how the Bush administration has yoked language, titled “Re-inscription and the Control of Meaning: America and the Signification Logic of Torture”.

    You can find the essay here.

    http://www.stevendixon.net/text7.htm

  42. 42
    katie5 says:

    And civilization equals weakness equals occasional recreational brutality. According to the quote in the article on 24, “their [French] enlightened legal systems had made them vulnerable to security threats,” became justification for the effete to torture the Algerians. Torture supporters believe they’re all the more heroic because they listen to their (inner child) lizard brain.

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