Sunday, August 28, 2005

Language and the Truth

Years ago, people with mobility problems were called crippled. Over the years, this term has been dropped in favour of handicapped, or disabled, or physically challenged, or differently-abled.

When I was growing up there was a severely mentally handicapped girl living next door. No one I knew made fun of her. In fact many of us often took extra care to be nice and help her. When I referred to her in conversation, I referred to the retarded girl. Not in a mean way. There was no intent to offend. To me, at that time, many years ago, it was simply what she was. I was a child and to me it was a matter of fact.

In today’s society the words “crippled” and "retarded" resonate almost like a slap in the face. Maybe because they are direct, unambiguous terms that invoke strong, direct images and a powerful emotional reaction. At some point, someone, somewhere was sufficiently offended to start a campaign to erase the words from our vocabulary. They told us the words were bad and we vowed never to use them again.

Today, we use the same terminology – differently-abled - to describe people with many different kinds of challenges, including people who cannot walk and people who suffer from mental deficiencies. One size fits all. No potentially offense words, but no recognition of individuality or differences either. And no truth.

Those who actively promote these linguistic changes usually do so because they believe that it will create a more caring society – one where no one is ever excluded or offended. I’m sure that many of them actually have good intentions. However, I never forget what the road to hell is paved with.

People in positions of influence and authority - especially bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen and priests - have long understood the power of the spoken and printed word. Control language and you not only control people’s thoughts and emotional responses; you diminish their ability to act and think as individuals. In essence, through language, they can collectivize and control us, body and soul.

Bill Clinton said he acted ‘inappropriately’ with Monica Lewinski. It’s inappropriate to serve white wine with beef. What he did was much worse than that. Our ability to think and see the world clearly is being challenged every day by people in positions of power who never use clear direct language. And the less clear the language, the more difficult it becomes to discern the truth.

In his old stand-up routine, George Carlin provided another good example of how our language is being engineered to shield us from the truth. Years ago, soldiers used to suffer from "shell shock". Two syllables. A blunt, effective term that conjured up negative images. And that will never do. So it was replaced with a kinder, gentler (and longer) alternative - “battle fatigue”. Four syllables with the true meaning of the words almost obscured, but not totally. So they came up with “post traumatic stress disorder" - a virtually meaningless, ploddingly long, eight syllable monstrosity that effectively obscured any meaning whatsoever. Mission accomplished. No offensive language. No negative imagery. No truth.

There are thousands of other examples of how our language has been softened to the point where many words and terms mean absolutely nothing and invoke no emotional response whatsoever. People don’t lie anymore, they are imprudent or make unfortunate errors in judgment. No one is raped, but many are sexually assaulted. You can’t buy a used car but there are many previously enjoyed ones. Men are no longer impotent, but they do have erectile dysfunction. CEOs don’t steal, they misappropriate. People don't die in Hospitals, there are just the occasional negative patient outcomes. Governments don't tax us, they simply engage in income redistribution. They don't have a department of war, they have a department of defense. And they have no soldiers, just peacekeepers. Employees don't get fired, they seek employment opportunities elsewhere. And Companies don't fire people, rather, they undergo an internal reallocation of resources or downsize (Oh, sorry, "down" is so negative. Now they call it rightsizing.) In some cities cab drivers are called Urban Transportation Specialists. Honest! People don't move, they relocate. Children aren’t rambunctious, they suffer from attention deficit disorder. Draft dodgers are called contientious objectors. And there are no old people anymore, just seniors or elderly folks. Notice that, in all cases, short, clear, powerfully visual words have been replaced by longer, ambiguous ones that provide false comfort, trick our perceptions, and hide the true meaning of what is going on.

Is it any wonder that people in our society are growing more and more detached, disaffected and indifferent. After all, years ago I felt sad and sympathetic when someone told me about a cripple - maybe because I knew what a cripple was. But I feel very little of anything today when someone uses the term differently-abled - maybe because I have absolutely no idea what differently-abled means. I guess those who forced this language change on us didn’t foresee that little wrinkle.

Maybe I shouldn’t let mere words influence my emotional reactions. But I do. We all do. I think it’s sad that we are losing so many words that have clear meanings, which invoke clear, strong, visceral responses - and replacing them with limp ambiguous drivel. Sure, there are fewer words for people to take offense at these days, but if it diminishes our ability to think clearly, communicate accurately, and act compassionately and confidently as individuals, is it really worth it?


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