POLITICAL LANGUAGE: by Bill MuehlenbergNews Weekly
Defending the indefensible by sugar-coating killing
, December 7, 2013
It is a basic truth that those engaged in evil will try to lie about it, or seek to cover it up with innocuous-sounding euphemisms. Sure, many are quite bold and forthright about their evil, and don’t even seek to make excuses for it or try to make it sound other than what it is.
There is of course a third category here: those who actually think their evil is just fine. As the American Catholic philosopher Edward Feser once wrote: “A man who knows that what he does is evil but does it anyway is corrupt; a man who has become so desensitised to the evil he does that he can no longer even perceive it as evil is even more corrupt” (Edward Feser blogspot, June 2, 2009).
But most people involved in their sordid practices resort to language games to con a gullible public. This of course has been a long-standing practice. Back in 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay, “Politics and the English Language”, in which he made some solid points about this tendency. Let me offer just one extract:
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.
“Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
“Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.’ Probably, therefore, he will say something like this: ‘While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigours which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement’.”
While I do not agree with all of Orwell’s examples of things which he deems are indefensible, I like his main point. And of course it is not just politicians who are guilty of this. Anyone engaged in evil acts seeks to hide it and camouflage it with euphemisms and doubletalk.
The abortion industry is obviously a perfect illustration of all this. The pro-death camp (and that is really what it is — there will be no euphemisms from me here) endlessly uses euphemisms of all sorts to cover up what they are really up to.
Thus we hear the term termination of pregnancy as an example. Well, what is of course terminated is the life of an innocent unborn child. And we already have a fully natural and acceptable way of ending a pregnancy — it is called birth.
Now if it is true that the “foetus” which is being “terminated” is not really human but just a blob of protoplasm, or at best, “a potential life”, then abortion is not much different from clipping a fingernail. But if the foetus is indeed a living human being, then the whole story changes.
The question of when a human life begins is of the utmost importance. As F. LaGard Smith put it in his book, When Choice Becomes God (1990): “When it comes to human life, we dare not play games with either doubts or definitions. If, in fact, we cannot decide when human life begins, then we cannot safely assume that it hasn’t begun. At a minimum, the almost universal agreement that an unborn foetus is both human and living must raise a presumption in favour of human life. Are we prepared to find out that we’ve been wrong all along in denying the obvious?”
The stakes are indeed too high. Consider this case: how would a hunter fare in a court of law if, while hunting, he had shot at a movement in the bush and killed, not a bird, but a fellow hunter? Surely the judge would ask, “If you were not sure, why did you shoot?” The burden of proof must lie with those who contend that human life is not being eliminated.
Or as ethicist John Frame says, “An arbitrary decision in a matter of life and death is an impossibility. If someone argues for the destruction of an organism on the premise that it is not a human person, surely he must be obligated to prove that premise; he may not claim the right to assume it arbitrarily.”
American political philosopher J. Budziszewski takes this train of thought even further: “But even if it were true that we do not know what babies are — a point I do not concede — why should we say that because the baby might not be human we may kill him? Why not say that because he might be, we should protect him? We do not say that because I might not hit anyone, I may swing my hatchet blindly in a crowded room; we say that because I might hit someone, I shouldn’t.”
But the euphemisms continue apace. Consider just one very recent example coming from Ireland. As one report states, “The Irish Family Planning Association is Ireland’s ‘leading sexual health charity’ which ‘provides sexual health, family planning, pregnancy counselling and training services’, according to its website.
“More accurately, however, it is a pro-choice organisation that likes to suggest having an abortion is no different than [sic.] getting your tonsils removed. The ‘charity’, along with the International Planned Parenthood Federation (surprise), recently released a video called, ‘Women Have Abortions Every Day: It’s Just One Choice’, suggesting an abortion is as normal as opening a business, going to school, or even getting your tonsils out” (Cortney O’Brien, Townhall.com, November 15, 2013).
Here we have a truckload full of euphemisms and just plain dodgy reasoning. Yes, women have abortions every day. And people run red lights every day and cheat on their partners every day, and gossip mercilessly about their neighbours every day too.
Just one choice? What about the baby’s choice? Does he or she have no choice here? I guess not. Oh, and ‘opening a business’ and ‘going to school’ are not only not immoral, but they usually do not entail killing another person either. Abortion of course is fully both: it is immoral and it kills another person.
A tonsil is not a distinct human being of course, just as a fingernail is not. But the unborn baby is a completely distinct and unique individual, with his or her own DNA and genetic identity. If a mother wants to clip a nail or take out the garbage, that is up to her.
But she has no right to kill another human being who happens to be taking up residence in her womb for a short while. So we must tell the truth here, and resist euphemisms which only cover up the killing. The first duty in defending morality is to proclaim truth.
This is certainly the case in the abortion wars.
Bill Muehlenberg is a commentator on contemporary issues, and lectures on ethics and philosophy. His website CultureWatch is at: www.billmuehlenberg.com
Edward Feser, “Two monsters”, Edward Feser blogspot, June 2, 2009.
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946).
F. LaGard Smith, When Choice Becomes God (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1990). ISBN: 9780890818282
Cortney O’Brien, “Pro-choice organization compares abortion to... getting your tonsils out”, Townhall.com, November 15, 2013.