September 03, 2004

Using Deceptive Language

[Ed: this is another of my articles which was first published in the August issue of the Vox Populi Nebraska ezine.]

George Orwell warned that sloppy language leads to foolish thoughts. One of the worst aspects of our discourse these days is how rarely our political language is used to express honest and clear thought. Of course, part of the fault lies with our schooling which tends to reward the complexity of thought and the use of obscure words. Indeed, there are those like William Buckley, Jr. who have incredibly large vocabularies and also take pleasure in using extremely obscure words to show how erudite they are. Yet, one must agree that the real problem with our political discourse these days is the purposeful use of words to lie and mislead. The result is a political environment that is dangerously toxic.

As George Orwell said in his excellent essay on this topic, the tendency to use unclear language can be a flaw found in any political persuasion. Humans tend to generalize and stereotype which leads to faulty conclusions. For example, it is wrong to say that the poor are lazy. While it might be true that some poor people are lazy, many of the poor work extremely hard for very little gain. Clear and precise language leads to a better understanding of reality and provides a better basis for devising policies regarding the poor. But the real danger according to Orwell comes when people purposely pervert language, because their goal is to mislead people and deny them the ability to make decisions based on accurate information.

The top strategists of the right-wing have used deceptive language in their pursuit of power for several decades. They have spent much money and energy putting together think tanks and focus groups to find ways to “sell” their message. And for years they have used language to demonize Democrats as a way to gain control of the government. Newt Gingrich even produced a booklet that recommended words to use when describing Republicans (strong, moral, citizen, protector) and how to describe their opponents. Some of the words that Gingrich recommended for describing Democrats are: bizarre, corrupt, incompetent, selfish, traitors. And after 9/11 the right-wing radicals gloated that they had won the battle for the hearts and minds of the American public.

Did they ever believe their ideology was so compelling that the majority of Americans would be won to their side without lies? Perhaps some do, but within the right-wing there is an elitism that believes that it is okay to lie to people because the ends justify the means. Leo Strauss who believed that only a select few could really understand the truth and that it is necessary to deceive the public has influenced many radical conservatives. As this essay on Strauss and his influence on Harold Bloom says:

“The perceived need to write obscurely also tends to obscure thought. The Closing of the American Mind is much better-written (in style, at least, if not in convoluted structure and argumentation) than anything by Leo Strauss. But even Bloom makes his argument complex and subtle to the point of evasiveness, as if he wants to confuse and mislead the reader.”

Frank Luntz, the well-known pollster and communication expert, provides talking points to the Republicans on how to sell their policies. Last year, I wrote about the memorandum he produced to convince Americans that the Republicans cared about the environment. In that memo he told the Republicans to belittle scientists as elitists out of touch with the American public and common sense.

This year Luntz has produced a document (pdf) that tells Republicans how to talk about the “War on Terror”. His goal was to show Republicans how to explain the policies of “preemption” and the “War in Iraq”. His first point in this document was to tell Republicans that they should never use these words to discuss these policies.

“However, you will not find any instance in which we suggest that you use the actual word “preemption”, or the phrase “The War in Iraq” to communicate your policies to the American public. To do so is to undermine your message from the start. Preemption may be the right policy, and Iraq the right place to start. But those are not the right words to use.

Your efforts are about “the principles of prevention and protection” in the greater “War on Terror”.”

As you see, Luntz once again tells the Republicans to use imprecise and deceitful language to disguise their real policies. And in this case, he is actually advocating the adoption of a word that describes a policy that is even more immoral than a preemptive policy. Note that even international treaties affirm that countries can attack first when there is a real danger; this is the definition of a preemptive war. A preventative war on the other hand is not justified morally or ethically in any civilized society because it is based on nothing more than a suspicion of a threat. It is like locking up someone at birth because you believe that when someone grows up he/she will be a dangerous criminal.

The problem is not simply that lying is morally wrong; it is also dangerous for the country. If you want to get answers to hard problems, one essential requirement is to ask the right questions. If you ask the wrong questions, the likelihood of getting a good answer is close to zero. Scientists are known to say, by clearly understanding the problem, you are half way to finding a solution. When one uses language that is deceitful, the policies that are proposed are also suspect. When the Bush administration decided to sell the war on Iraq as a part of the War on Terror, they created a nightmare for our troops and for the ordinary Iraqis who are now living in a chaotic, war-torn country. They also created the cesspool of Abu Ghraib where soldiers believing that the prisoners in their power were terrorists or had information about terrorists, were given the green light to indulge in torture and sadism because terrorists are evil. Americans will feel the consequences of Bush’s war of choice justified with lies for years, if not decades.

One of the real battles in the upcoming election is reclaiming the right to clear and truthful language. To reclaim our right to the information that allows us to make good decisions as people who live in a democracy. It is time to condemn the lies and secrecy of the right-wing radicals who have taken over our government.

For a good analysis of how the language in Luntz’ memo should be confronted, read this.

Posted by Mary at September 3, 2004 03:20 AM | Communications | Technorati links |