People are usually considered good communicators when they are able to “get to the point” without cluttering the air with lot of unnecessary words. There are times, however, when we deliberately avoid being direct.
More often than we realize we make calculated efforts to soften the impact of what would otherwise be a very blunt, harsh, or crude message. The name of this practice is euphemism and we do it all the time.
Noun: A mild or indirect word or expression for one too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing
Sometimes euphemisms are used in charity such as when we say that Uncle Charlie is “mature” and “spirited” when we really mean he is old and cranky. We say someone is “big”, when we really mean they are “overweight.”
In the professional world, euphemisms are frequently employed to provide “spin” to stories, such as when we say the company is “downsizing” or “rightsizing, ” rather than saying it is conducting mass layoffs.
But there is an even more sinister and insidious side to the use of euphemisms when they are used to conceal, deceive, or desensitize people to the realities of evil.
Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the current political debates surrounding issues of morality.
Recently we’ve seen what amounts to the hijacking of language when terms such as “reproductive healthcare” and “personal choice” are deployed as euphemisms which effectively allow us to avoid thinking about the ugliness of abortion. After all who would be against something as good as “health care”, or opposed to giving people “choices”?
Phrases like “who you love” and “equality” are skillfully woven into campaigns to redefine the objective meaning of institutions like marriage and family as if to imply that anyone holding a traditional understanding of these terms are opposed to universal values like love and equality.
We frequently hear that it’s time for us to “move forward” to catch up to the times and to embrace the new cultural norms. The real question however is “what do we MEAN when we say we want to move the country forward”? To move forward implies a real destination, but what is that destination? As Gil Bailie said in a recent essay,
“As for moving this country forward,” what, pray God, will that promised land look like if the path to it is paved with dead children?” (The Cornerstone Forum -Notes in the Margins,Wednesday, September 12, 2012)
G.K. Chesterton saw the problem of euphemism almost 100 years ago when he wrote the following observation:
“What is quaintly called Birth Control . . . is in fact, of course, a scheme for preventing birth in order to escape control.” (“The Surrender upon Sex” – The Well and the Shallows)
Chesterton noticed the tendency of so-called rationalists to resort to softer “feel-good” words in order to promote immoral ideas.
We can always convict such people of sentimentalism by their weakness for euphemism. … They talk of free love when they mean something quite different, better defined as free lust. But being sentimentalists they feel bound to simper and coo over the word “love.” They insist on talking about Birth Control when they mean less birth and no control.” (“Obstinate Orthodoxy” – The Thing)
Real communication requires that language be used in a way that actually communicates. Dialog is impossible without a common language, but the language has to be to TELL the truth, not HIDE the truth.
As we seek to promote what is good, true, and beautiful, we must insist that words be used accurately and that they lead us toward truth. We need to pay attention to the both words USED — and words AVOIDED.
It has been said that truth, like a magnet, has the power to both attract and repel. If language is used to prevent the truth from being exposed, no real discussion, debate or dialog is even possible.
Sin by any other name is still sin, and words can’t change that.