Euphemisms and the Banality of Evil

George Orwell

George Orwell

W.J. Astore

I teach a course on the Holocaust, so I’ve had ample opportunity to confront the use of euphemisms by the Nazis to cloak their murderous intent.  The most infamous euphemism was “the final solution to the Jewish question,” which of course refers to the mass murder–the extermination–of all Jews everywhere. But there were many other euphemisms, to include “evacuation” and “resettlement” for the shipment of Jews to death camps in Poland.

Such coded language was intended in part to deceive the Jews, but it was also an exercise in self-deception (or self-desensitization, perhaps).  The Nazis, in other words, deflected some of the horrors of their murderous activities by thinking of them in banal terms.  The banality of language helped to make possible the “banality of evil” exercised by Nazi functionaries like Adolf Eichmann.  He was just “removing” and “resettling” Jews, or so he may have preferred to think (when he thought at all).

Comparisons between Nazism and other systems are always difficult and often tendentious. Godwin’s Law suggests that Internet debates often degenerate to name-calling in which Nazi analogies, carelessly applied, are trotted out in an attempt to triumph over one’s opponent.  It’s a good law to keep in mind.

Yet it’s remarkable to me the proliferation of euphemisms in U.S. military and political discourse. “Enhanced interrogation techniques” for torture. “Extraordinary rendition” for kidnapping. “Collateral damage” for the death of innocents (often children) in combat operations. Guantanamo Bay as a “detention camp” for “detainees” rather than a prison (or concentration) camp for prisoners.  Even the “global war on terror” was rebranded in 2009 as “overseas contingency operation,” as if one can deny the deadly realities of war simply by changing the name.

George Orwell warned us about the political uses of language in his famous essay from 1946.  We ignore his warning at our peril.  Cloaking violent, even murderous actions in banal language may make a few functionaries sleep easier at night.  But they should make the rest of us profoundly uncomfortable.

Banal language facilitates and helps to actuate the banality of evil. As Vaclav Havel noted in his essay “A Word About Words” (1989), “The point is that all important events in the real world–whether admirable or monstrous–always have their prologue in the realm of words.”

The more we invoke euphemisms to cloak harsh realities, the more we ensure that harshness will endure; indeed, that it will grow harsher, more pernicious. Even worse: that it will become banal, even “normal.”

Torture is torture.  Kidnapping is kidnapping.  Dead infants are dead infants.  War is war.  And extermination is extermination.

Employing euphemisms is not just an exercise in banality of language; it’s often a betrayal of humanity.

5 thoughts on “Euphemisms and the Banality of Evil

  1. Euphemisms for the evil of abortion [i.e., the deliberate killing of an innocent preborn baby]: reproductive choice, reproductive health, woman’s decision, pro-choice, termination of a pregnancy, medical procedure, pregnancy loss, unintended conception, a difficult decision, only a fetus, mass of tissue, failed contraception, planned parenthood.

  2. As George Orwell also wrote in “Politics and the English Language” (1946):

    “The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism.”

    For example, consider General David Petraeus, Commander of the International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan (since promoted to head of the CIA), regarding his mission objectives and his prospects for achieving them:

    “I think no commander ever is going to come out and say ‘I’m confidant that we can do this.’ I think we say you assess, we believe this is, you know, a reasonable prospect.”

    In other words:

    The Inflated Style as Euphemism

    The general has started talking funny
    Like, never stating what we can achieve.
    Instead, he babbles jargon for the money
    Which means he never plans for us to leave.

    We’ve been there now so long that few remember
    How many times we’ve heard the same old song.
    Our plans, those scruffy foreigners dismember
    While we proclaim that we’ve done nothing wrong.

    The president has donned his bomber jacket
    To have his picture taken with the troops:
    For conquerors, cheap tools that serve the racket;
    For statesmen, simple patriotic dupes.

    Our presidents and generals have blundered
    And now can only stall for yet more time
    While citizens back home whom they have plundered
    Refuse to see the nature of the crime.

    We went to “war” with tax cuts for the wealthy
    And exhortations to consume and spend.
    Now broke and begging from the thieving stealthy,
    Our leaders promise this will never end.

    Our presidents and generals stage dramas
    And wave the bloody shirt while spouting gas
    To keep us safe from peasants in pajamas
    And poppy farmers smoking hash and grass.

    We did this once before in Southeast Asia
    As names upon a granite wall attest.
    The country, though, prefers its euthanasia:
    The laying of all memory to rest.

    So let us listen raptly to the latest
    Inflated euphemism coined to quell
    The slightest thought that we might be the greatest
    Bullshitters of whom history can tell.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2010

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