While many people, including our president, are calling for “civility of debate,” I fear that ship sailed long ago. The real issue today is understanding the debasement of our language, and how we in America have traveled from George Carlin to George Orwell.
Carlin warned about “soft language,” or our culture’s way of obscuring meaning with euphemism. When did toilet paper become “bathroom tissue,” he asked. When did “the dump” became “the landfill”? When did old people became “senior citizens” enjoying their “golden years”?
Those euphemisms were benign compared to what came next.
When did selling become “marketing”? When did used cars became “preowned”? When did problems become “issues”?
Sex is one of the great corrupters of language, and you can blame former President Bill “I didn’t inhale” Clinton for the worst of those.
When he told a grand jury that he was not having sex with an intern, he added this immortal sentence to our culture: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
At the time, I thought that he was just trying to weasel out of taking responsibility for his actions, that people would see what he was and condemn his behavior. I didn’t expect the culture to change.
But Clinton seems to have changed the definition of sex.
For example, just a few weeks ago, I read about a website that was — with shades of Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby — planning to stream on the web what they announced as the “deflowering of a virgin” who was, in actuality, a porn star who for years had been having oral and anal sex on camera.
I don’t care what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms, or even on camera, but one thing in common about oral sex, anal sex, vaginal sex, or any other kind of sex is the word “sex.” This girl was not, God help us, any kind of a virgin.
All I could say was, “Thanks, Bill.”
* * *
If you want to find a tipping point for the corruption of the language, maybe it was the first time you made a phone call and heard, “This call is being recorded for quality purposes.”
What happened next? You spent the next 20 or 30 minutes on hold in a state of teeth-grinding frustration.
It was the moment when we all meekly accepted The First Big Corporate Lie: the moment when “the customer is always right” went down the drain.
Today, those lies are everywhere. How many of your “friends” on Facebook do you actually know? How many are just trying to sell you something?
I rest my case.
As we slowly and painfully accepted the watering down of the language, the euphemisms grew more dangerous — we went from comedy into into Orwell’s territory. How about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction,” as if all weapons couldn’t be considered that?
“[I]t is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes,” Orwell wrote in Politics and the English Language in 1946. “It is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer.”
The multiple lies we hear now — waterboarding isn’t torture, Obama is a Muslim, Social Security is going bankrupt — from Fox News, the right-wing radio talk show hosts, the Tea Partiers, the radical left, and others have so muddied the waters that we’re hard-pressed to tell truth from fiction and propaganda from reality.
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” Orwell wrote. “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[...]. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”
* * *
For me, the tragic shootings in Tucson a few weeks ago crystallized the problem.
The demented shooter actually gave a reason for killing six people and wounding 13 others. (Can we agree that his Glock was a “weapon of mass destruction”?)
The lies of the left and the right had gotten so whirled around in the blender of the shooter’s confused mind that he believed, according to The Guardian, that “his former college was illegal under the U.S. constitution, the space shuttle missions were faked, and the Sept. 11 attacks were staged by the government, and the claim that the world we see does not actually exist.”
But his terrible obsession with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords? It seems that in 2007, at a Town Hall–style meeting, he asked her a question and didn’t like her response.
The question that got Giffords shot was straight out of Orwell: “What is government if words have no meaning?”
The slide from Carlin to Orwell has been almost seamless. And where do we go from here?