The language of dehumanisation

An excellent article in The Guardian this week by George Monbiot brought to the fore once again the beurocratic and politicised language used to dehumanise the objects (i.e. people) under consideration. He talks of the recent alleged use of the word “stock” by the British government to describe disabled people in the context of public work programmes. Other terms like “benefit units” to mean families, or “biomass” to refer to people on a medical waiting list (in Norway this time) are also shown in their true light as dehumanising jargon freeing beurocrats of pestering feelings of guilt or immorality.

By now we’re familiar with the American military terminology used to dehumanise the enemy – “collateral damage” or “enhanced interrogation” – so familiar in fact that these euphemisms, and their general acceptance by the mainstream media, have become somewhat of a joke to certain sectors of the population.  There’s even an NYT torture euphemism generator you can go play around with.

This infographic from highlights the main media culprits in the persistant avoidance of the use of the word “torture”.

torture graphic 1 web

But it’s not only “the other” drowning unseen in this torpid pool of jargon and euphemism. As Monbiot points out in his article, we are all concerned, whether we happen to be “stock”, “biomass”, or part of a “benefit unit”. The terms we use to refer to physical and psychlogical processes endured by individuals strongly dictates how they are perceived in society. Are you just plain crazy or do you have a mental illness?

As George Carlin brilliantly declines in his sketch on euphemisms (check it out to lighten the mood), whether you suffered from shell shock, battle fatigue, operational exhaustion or PTSD depended on which war you faught (the different terms refer to essentially the same condition). The more the century progressed, the more the condition’s traumatic and human nature seemed to evaporate, lost to a babble of syllables and medical terminology.

From the CIA to the HR department, language is used to hide behind, a veil of seeming complexity carefully and thoughtfully applied to confuse and obfuscate reality. Or as George Carlin puts it: “Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal their sins.”


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