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:
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.