Newspeaking About Torture

If you can’t ban a word, break it.

One major theme of George Orwell’s 1984 is the importance of language to oppressive governments. From the beginning of recorded history, crude dictators have punished people for criticizing their rule. But modern, sophisticated dictators change the language itself, so that thoughts undermining the ruling ideology are hard to put into words, and no one would understand what you were saying if you did.

Orwell described this technique in detail in an essay he appended to 1984, “The Principles of Newspeak“.

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. … This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.

That’s a fine strategy if you already run a totalitarian government like the one in Orwell’s Oceania. But it completely ignores the problems faced by movements still trying to rise to power, like today’s American conservatives. Despite controlling Congress, they can’t just ban words they don’t like.

All they have besides Congress is a media empire, vast wealth, and an amazing degree of message discipline. What can you accomplish with those resources?

Just by being loud and persistent, you can try to alter common usage to favor your ideology. Sometimes that works (“death tax“) and sometimes it doesn’t (“homicide bomber“). But the real challenge is to disarm a word that works against you or for your enemies.

In Oceania they’d simply remove the word from the dictionary and correct everyone who kept using it. (“It’s not in the dictionary, so it’s not proper Newspeak.”) Or they’d keep the word, but remove all its offending meanings, again correcting the people who persisted in using it incorrectly.

But what if you don’t have that kind of power? American conservatives solved this problem a long time ago: If you can’t ban a word, you apply your resources to break it through misuse.

I’m not sure when this started. (That’s the great thing about breaking a word; eventually everybody stops using it, so it never comes to mind again. Your tracks are covered, because hardly anybody ever asks “How did zimzam become unusable?”) Maybe it was during the Reagan years, when liberal became an insult to throw at people you don’t like. I’m not sure. I wasn’t paying attention to the right things then. None of us were, or we might have tried to defend liberal rather than just stop using it.

I first noticed word-breaking* years later, during the second Bush administration. A lot of nasty stuff was happening then: The U.S. government was torturing people in secret prisons, spying on its own citizens, locking people up indefinitely without trials, and manufacturing bogus reasons to invade a foreign country. The administration was justifying all that by putting forward bizarre new legal interpretations of “the unitary executive” and the nearly unlimited “Article II power” he had whenever he determined that we were at war. Standing previous conservative small-government and fiscal-responsibility rhetoric on its head, the administration was creating huge new programs to buy off key constituencies, and not raising any revenue to pay for them. (Just tack them on to the deficit. No worries.)

As I was reading an Economist article characterizing Bush’s ideology as “big-government conservatism”, I wondered: Why use such a cumbersome phrase, when English already had a perfectly good word for this configuration of ideas and policies — fascism.

The answer was that fascism had become unusable, because misuse had broken it. Just when America needed the word to describe what was going on, conservatives were instead discussing “liberal fascism” and “Islamo-fascism” and so forth. In the conservative media, suddenly anything and everything was fascist, except the kind of militaristic, torturing, secretive, prying, corporatist, big-government conservatism that had been practiced by Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, and Pinochet — and was increasingly being adopted by Bush.

The word fascist could have been a rallying call for the enemies of American conservatism. But conservatives averted that threat by breaking fascist through misuse. As a result, today you are perfectly free to talk about fascism — I just did — but no one will know what you mean. Fascist is nothing but an insult now; it has no real content. If you use it, you aren’t saying anything in particular, you’re just being aggressive and rude.

Terrorism was broken in another way, like a proud wolf who gets turned into an attack dog. Terrorism used to have a clear meaning: threatening or perpetrating violence against civilians for political purposes. It was an ideologically neutral description of a tactic that any political movement might resort to. But after a decade of misuse, terrorism has become any violent act conservatives disapprove of. So the Fort Hood massacre is terrorism, even though it was an attack against a military base. Whatever ISIS does is terrorist, even fielding an army and fighting pitched battles against other soldiers. But hardly anyone (except me) called the Sikh Temple murderer what he was: a white right-wing Christian terrorist. White Christian right-wingers can’t be terrorists any more; it’s an oxymoron.

More recently, religious freedom and religious persecution have been broken. A generation ago those were ACLU words, used by atheists, Jews, and other minority movements that struggled against oppression by the Christian majority.

That oppression hasn’t disappeared; in many ways it’s getting worse. But the words to fight it have been hijacked so that they’re barely usable any more. Today, religious persecution is telling a Christian baker that a gay couple is part of the general public his business serves. Or maybe it’s just saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. Religious freedom means that a Christian employer is “free” to block any part of his employees’ health-care coverage that he doesn’t like, and a Christian pharmacist can freely decide whether he approves of your prescription (and the lifestyle it implies) before he fills it. Separation of church and state — which used to be the hallmark of religious freedom — is now a Communist idea that is part of the conspiracy to persecute Christians.

So now, when Kennesaw, Georgia won’t let a Muslim group rent space to worship in their town, or a parole officer forces an atheist to attend a religious program under threat of returning to jail, there are no words to describe what’s happening. Calling it “religious persecution” just confuses people.

And that brings us to torture. For the longest time, the primary defense of the Bush torture program was that it didn’t happen. There was no torture, there was just enhanced interrogation, a phrase brazen enough to do Newspeak proud.

But that defense has become untenable now that the Senate report on torture is out. Once the public heard the details, the claim that this wasn’t torture was exposed as ridiculous. (That’s only going to get worse as more details appear.) And although some are trying, the word torture can’t be reclaimed from the dark side. There’s no way to say, “We’re the Torture Party and that’s a good thing.”

But there is an alternative strategy: misuse the word torture until it breaks.

Dick Cheney pointed the way during his Meet the Press interview with Chuck Todd. When Todd asked how Cheney defined torture, Cheney deflected with this:

Well, torture, to me, Chuck, is an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11.

Todd followed up by asking whether rectal feeding was torture, and Cheney continued his distract-with-shiny-objects strategy.

I’ve told you what meets the definition of torture. It’s what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11.

The misuse campaign is on. The American Thinker blog reports on the “real torture scandal in America“, which is abortion. General Boykin says “Torture is what we’ve done by having the IRS go after conservative groups.” The Koch-funded American Energy Alliance is calling EPA fossil-fuel regulations “torture”:

Whether it’s the costliest regulation in history or the coal-killing power plant rules (that Obama’s law professor says raise “constitutional questions”), it’s clear that the CIA isn’t the only government agency engaged in torture. At least the CIA isn’t torturing Americans.

The AEA illustrated its point with this cartoon:

Yes, “raising energy costs” and “harassing property owners” are now torture.

Expect to hear a lot more of this. Soon, every inconvenience to a conservative special interest group is going to be “torture”. Anything and everything will be “torture” — except a CIA interrogator looking into the eyes of a helpless (and possibly innocent) prisoner and threatening excruciating pain, trauma, or humiliation unless he talks.

Torture can’t be defended, so the word torture has to become meaningless. If you can’t ban a word, break it.

* I anticipate the question: “What about the ways that liberals try to change the language?” There are a number of words liberals have tried to remove from the language, like nigger or faggot. We discourage men from referring to adult females as girls, and so on. But these efforts have been above-board and transparent. For example, we have largely removed nigger from common usage among whites by openly discussing the reasons whites shouldn’t say nigger. If conservatives want to start a similarly open discussion to convince people to stop saying torture, I invite them to try.

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  • Rhett  On December 22, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    This is your typically great work, with one exception– “fascism” is probably not the word you’re looking for, unless you’re trying to similarly break fascism into a word you can tactically deploy. “Fascism” has meaning far apart from “big government conservatism,” having far more to do with a philosophy and mythology of restoration to a historic “golden age” when a hypothesized “natural order” was followed by an accepting body politic. It blends elements of nationalism, racism, etc together to justify strict hierarchy and singular leader who works for the benefit of that mythology. Describing it takes more space than I really want to devote to a comment, but I’m married to someone who professionally studies fasicsm, neofascism, and the New Right, and I would be happy to ask her to send you some resources if you’re looking for them.

    • Adam W. Gould (@RidingAmokAG)  On December 22, 2014 at 2:42 pm

      I think the academic definition of fascism that you’ve just described, Rhett, actually summarizes the current ideology of big-government conservatism pretty well. I mean, how often do you hear conservatives speak of things like “restoring American greatness” and the notion that if we’d just believe in America and adhere to traditional American values hard enough, we could get back to being a transformational world leader like we were…at some point…in the hallowed past? The nationalism and racism you mentioned fits nicely into the “city on a hill, barbarians at the gates” narrative that Doug has been describing for a few weeks now. I’m sure there’s still lots more to it, but from where I’m sitting the description appears quite apt.

      • Rhett  On December 22, 2014 at 2:44 pm

        Actually, Adam, while I understand where you’re getting this from, it’s far more of a small set of very superficial morphological similarities that really don’t hold up when you look at the history and present of actual fascism.

      • Philippe Saner  On December 23, 2014 at 12:03 am

        For what it’s worth, that description sounds a lot like modern conservatism to me as well.

      • weeklysift  On December 23, 2014 at 5:04 am

        I can see both sides of this, but the larger point is that however this debate might come out, the word is unusable in a national political context. Mussolini could reincarnate on a white horse, and we’d have to invent some new way to describe him. He’d be an ethno-nostalgic conservative or something.

      • weeklysift  On December 24, 2014 at 10:25 am

        Worth looking at in this context is Mike the Mad Biologist writing about Palinism and “the politics of the blood”. He winds up straddling the fence: “I am not claiming that Palin or her admirers are fascists. There are, however, some fascist tendencies, which could very well morph into full-blown fascism.”

        I think there’s a bit more here than superficial similarities.

      • Rhett  On December 24, 2014 at 11:47 am

        I like reading Mike, but, again, spending my time around people who work against fascist entryism, it’s superficial comparisons being made dramatic.

    • Jeremy  On December 24, 2014 at 1:59 pm

      I think I follow what you mean, Rhett. While there are some underlying motivations or potential aims that bear relation to fascism, we don’t see the totalitarian societal control, rigid military-police state type of authoritarianism a proper fascist tries to establish. What Doug mentioned of the Bush administration, for instance, shifts us closer to rather than further from such a society, but he didn’t abolish the elections, institute martial law, or take over all public media.

      Is that about right?

      • Rhett  On December 24, 2014 at 5:20 pm

        That is some of it, Jeremy. In addition, fascism, long before it seizes the tools of power, already positions itself as anti-democratic and anti-modern. It privileges “blood and soil” narratives of a people and sets modernity and pluralism as the impediments to it. It justifies violence from the beginning, which is why it takes root in street fighting movements. Often, fascism’s climb to power comes about when civic institutions can no longer maintain basic order on their own and reach out to the militant services fascist groups provide.

        In present days, most fascists don’t even call themselves fascist, and possibly my favorite term for a fascist group is “anarcho-monarchy.” They engage in entryism with a number of fronts, including neofolk concerts and cultural festivals such as Scottish Games competitions, always just trying to “encourage” people to “celebrate their heritage,” which has been carefully crafted to include an idea of “whiteness.”

        Our conservatives do have superficial similarities to some fascist thinkers, especially when they pull out “barbarians at the gates” narratives or talk about exceptionalism or “restoring America.” That stuff is the general material of the Right, though. Fascism goes farther in directly asserting essential hierarchy (usually based on race), on the right of using violence to enforce hierarchy, on the pseudo-spiritual connections of “a people” and “their leader,” of the idea that diversity must necessarily “confuse” and “weaken” “a people,” etc.

        To put it another way, an American fascist would absolutely use much of Palin’s or Bush’s rhetoric about America and the American people as part of his/her cultural mythology, but s/he would also take it much farther in directions I cannot imagine any mainstream Republican going.

        With fascism, abolishing elections, instituting martial law, and taking over all public media are things which are already indicated by the ideology from the get-go; they were already right. Bush’s people played very, very fast and loose with the mechanisms of elections, made tortured rationalizations about the Constitution’s position on executive power, and so on, but they did not at any point claim the concept of democracy was broken and had led to moral decay. Most notably, Bush respected his term limits, and he knew full well that those around him would make sure he did. Bush et al pushed the system in directions that were authoritarian and had notes of serious Right thought to them; in the end, though, they were not after the abolition of our system.

  • Cameron  On December 23, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    “Fascism” has meaning far apart from “big government conservatism,” having far more to do with a philosophy and mythology of restoration to a historic “golden age” when a hypothesized “natural order” was followed by an accepting body politic. It blends elements of nationalism, racism, etc together to justify strict hierarchy and singular leader who works for the benefit of that mythology.”

    Yep. Sounds like all the hallmarks of the Bush administration to me…

    And, I think the weekly sift underestimates the appeal of the torture party. Check out my Facebook feed sometime. There’s a pretty solid bloc of Americans who willing to sport the idea that torturing “those people” was a good thing.

    • Cameron  On December 23, 2014 at 3:51 pm

      Sorry. Who are willing to support the idea.

    • Cameron  On December 23, 2014 at 3:52 pm

      Sorry. Who are willing to support the idea(…)

    • Rhett  On December 23, 2014 at 3:55 pm

      Again, fascism sounds like the Bush administration only through some very dramatic and superficial comparisons.

  • Brent Holman  On December 24, 2014 at 12:59 am

    Terms have lost their meanings, a new Babel. ‘Liberal’ is a good one.

  • Anonymous  On December 29, 2014 at 8:37 am

    There’s a very simple way to stop people from “breaking” the word “torture”; subject them to it! Waterboard them until they admit that, yes, this IS torture, and NO, it’s NOT the same as clean air regulations or even an IRS audit. Of course, this method isn’t available to those of us who possess morals, so I guess we’re screwed.


  • By Unspeakable Acts | The Weekly Sift on December 22, 2014 at 9:49 am

    […] This week’s featured post is “Newspeaking About Torture“. […]

  • By Prosperity Rises | The Weekly Sift on January 26, 2015 at 10:13 am

    […] few weeks ago I used torture as an example of how conservatives will intentionally break a word they don’t like through intentional misuse. Well, now they’re working on breaking theocracy. How else to […]

  • […] return to now and then is how the Right takes a word that has been effectively used against it and breaks that word through repeated misuse. I’m not sure when this practice began. Probably it had already been going on for some while […]

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