Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Pens and Swords

Waterboarding: a curious word, which unfortunately, we have all become too familiar with. Imagine though, if you’d never heard the word before, if your first encounter with the word “waterboarding” was now. The word, you are told, refers to either, an “enhanced interrogation technique”, which involves the simulation of drowning; or, a new surfing related extreme sport.

Which meaning would you assume to be correct?

For me, the adoption of a seemingly innocent term as a moniker for an act of extreme violence is indeed curious; but it is no accident.

The flippant, almost playful, relationship between the term “waterboarding” and the horrific act which it describes is just one example of a new and sinister form of euphemism which has entered public discourse. These euphemisms, many of which were born in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, (“the war on terror”) function to conceal the reality they profess to describe.

Take for instance, George W Bush’s recent procedural description of “waterboarding” as an “enhanced interrogation technique”, as opposed to say, the more concise and popularly used term: “torture”. To even categorise this phraseology as a euphemism, is in itself a euphemistic act, given that the term “lie” would be somewhat more accurate.

In the views of some, such nitpicking over the semantics of these words may seem inconsequential, especially considering the seriousness of the actions to which they refer. However, though it may be accepted that actions speak louder than words; that is not to say that words carry no action.

The ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, or “the war on terror”, as they are often collectively described, have produced many new words and phrases, which seek to project a particular worldview. Consider for instance the differing ideological connotations in the expression “regime change” as opposed to “coup d’état”; or “torture” versus “enhanced interrogation technique”.

Whatever your views are on these evocative and contemporary subjects, they are likely to manifest themselves in the language one uses to describe them. The much overused axiom of cultural and political relativism: “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, does not just reveal how people see the world differently, but how people champion their particular world view in language. Language is many things, but rarely neutral.

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