The Language Of Mendacity

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The language of mendacity
'When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less'. Alice in Wonderland’s topsy turvy world is often nearer to our everyday lives than we may realise. Philip Knightly looks at some uses and abuses of the English language.

IN an academic paper which deserves wider circulation, an American psychologist, S.P. Sethi, set out a strategy big corporations could use in a democracy to neutralise adverse public opinion. The brilliance of the strategy was that there was no need for the corporation to change within itself no need even to soften those practices which had brought public opinion upon it in the first place. In a masterpiece of psychological theory, Sethi concluded that all it was necessary to do was to change public perception of those practices. In layman’s terms, what the corporation was doing could remain exactly the same if people were simply taught to see it differently.

The crunch question is, of course, how do you teach them to see differently? Sethi had an answer for that too; you change the symbols used to describe the corporation’s performance. You use different words to describe what the corporation is doing, words that are more in line with the way the critics of the corporation want it to behave. So that if, for example, the corporation was under union attack for the activities of a time and motion study expert who was trying to speed up the production line, the simple act of changing his title to Industrial Relations Officer would be the first step towards confounding the critics.

This technique was described by another industrial psychologist as ‘stealing of liberal symbols for conservative purposes’. A crisper description would be the creation of a language of mendacity, where the use of words and phrases allows the person using them to lie without appearing to do so, a language that lulls with soothing reassurances, that covers the truth rather than replaces it, and makes the unthinkable acceptable; even desirable. The alarming thing is that so many areas of modem life are full of the language of mendacity being used by people who, presumably, have never heard of Sethi but who have unconsciously adopted his technique. The first, and most obvious instance is that concerning nuclear warfare.

As linguistics expert Paul Chilton points out in ‘Nukespeak: the media and the bomb’, from the very first atomic explosion the bomb’s supporters have used language which makes nuclear development seem harmless, even desirable. It was given a religious significance. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the first tests, called the first test site ‘Trinity’. The first official report of the explosion spoke of ‘forces heretofore reserved to the Almighty’. The Dean of Salisbury said bluntly, ‘God made the atom and gave the scientists the skill to release its energy'.

After the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, General MacArthur placed all southern Japan off-limits to the press and tightened censorship. As a result it was 30 days before the first press report on the effects of the bomb appeared in Allied news - papers and even then the more horrific details had been deleted. In the meantime there were a series of public references to the bombing which made it possible to believe that the development of the bomb and its use had actually been a good thing.

Churchill said it had been developed by Britain and the United States — rather than by the Germans — because of God’s mercy. There were repeated references to a new age because man had mastered the benevolent power of the sun and the universe. President Truman said. ‘The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed.’ The London Times, in a leading article on August 8, 1945, spoke of ‘a revolution in earthly affairs . . . the fundamental power of the universe, the power manifested in the sunshine that has been recognised from the remotest ages as the sustaining force of earthly life, is now entrusted to earthly hands’.

The overall effect of this was to encourage the belief that we had entered the nuclear age because of God’s will, that nuclear power was a good thing, like sunshine, and that it could become, as Churchill said, ‘a permanent fountain of world prosperity’. But when the main thrust of post-war nuclear policy seemed to be the development of more and more nuclear weapons, new forms of mendacity had to be employed to make this acceptable.

One way was to humanise the weapons. Not only were they given friendly nicknames — like ‘Honest John’ — but, as Chilton points out, they were made of the comforting image of the family. Edward Teller became the ‘father’ of the H-bomb. The weapons grew from infants (‘baby nukes’) to old age (NATO’s ‘ageing’ forces) as part of the ICBM ‘family’. They ‘retired’ when their life was over (‘the retiring’ Polaris force) and made way for the young (a ‘new generation’ of ICBMs). They never really do anything nasty. They are described as being able to hit so many ‘targets’, never people. And they exist because of the need to ‘deter’, a mendacious word if ever there was one, because of its implication of preventing someone from doing something they are about to do — attack us.

In short, we have been lured into accepting nuclear development and the possibility of nuclear warfare by having our perceptions of what has been happening changed for us by the mendacious use of familiar, comforting words that conceal the reality. The dangers are obvious.

Military language abounds with mendacious words. Some of these are intended to conceal from the country the truth of what is happening. In the First World War, a retreat became ‘a rectification of the line’. In the Second World War the deliberate air attacks on the civilian population of Germany were referred to as ‘area bombing’. In both wars, sporting references were used to imply that officers and men enjoyed nothing better than a battle. We were going to ‘hit the Huns for six’; this was only the ‘first round’, but soon we would deliver the ‘knock-out punch’. (Some of these phrases surfaced again in the Falklands conflict) The aim of these mendacious phrases is to remove the horror of war. So the phrase ‘to take out’, as in 'to take out an enemy position' bears no relation to its other uses, such as ‘to take out to dinner’. It means to kill everyone in the position. Similarly, ‘acceptable losses of 1,000 men’ really means ‘We don’t mind if 1,000 men are killed’.

Israel code-named its invasion of the Lebanon earlier this year ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’, thus linking the word peace with one of the most devastating military operations in recent Middle East history. One of its press releases was headed ‘Israeli humanitarian relief work in Lebanon’. This detailed how the Israel Defence Forces and Israeli civilian voluntary services had been mobilised to begin relief work ‘to restore life in Lebanon to normal’. Nowhere in the release does it explain how life in Lebanon came to be abnormal. One Israeli official answered criticism of Israel’s role in the Middle East by saying that the West was the victim of ‘a classic case of self-inflicted massive disinformation’.

The advertising business thrives on changing people’s perceptions by the use of mendacious words. Forced to carry the British Govemment Health Department’s warning about the risk of smoking, cigarette manufacturers turned to low-tar cigarettes to combat the fall in sales. Their advertising agents then devoted their skills to make tar seem an attractive quality in a cigarette. ‘Discover low tar’, the advertisements said. Here the mendacious use of the word ‘discover’ carries an invitation to experience something attractive, as in, for example, ‘Discover America’, a campaign to promote tourism. An invitation to discover tar in cigarettes, even low tar, is an attempt to change smokers’ perception of tar as being a dangerous substance.

In the retail business, all those attractive but often largely useless objects that we are encouraged to buy are called, en masse, ‘consumer durables’, when, as all consumers know, they do not last very long at all because of ‘built-in obsolescence’. Salesmen selling insurance against a man’s early death soon realised that they would have a much more attractive product if they re-labelled it ‘life’ insurance. Employers planning to sack a lot of workers know that their action will attract less public attention if they call it ‘involuntary redundancy’. Racial bigots refer to ‘benevolent repatriation’ and ‘involuntary repatriation’, the former meaning that the government should pay the blacks to leave, the latter that it should boot them out with nothing,

In politics the language of mendacity flourishes, especially in times of national crisis. The Falklands war brought this out very clearly. We are accustomed to the use of the word ’dissident’ in intemational affairs. It means, almost without exception, someone brave enough to disagree with the policies of the government of the USSR. There were many in Britain who did not agree with the govemment’s Falklands policy. Were they, too, dissidents? At best they were accused of lack of love for their country, not part of the ‘atriotic majority’. At worst they were called traitors.

Much the same applies to domestic politics. A man who has not been able to get a job for a long time is said to be part of the ‘hard core’ unemployed, like hard core criminal, the implication being that he is happy to stay that way. Strikers are urged to consider the ‘national interest’, which is usually never more than a sectional interest, and we are exhorted in the rhetoric, of the Second World War to recapture, variously, the Dunkirk spirit, the Churchill spirit, or the spirit of the Blitz — all mendacious parallels.

The long-term risk of mendacious language is threefold — a degeneration of respect for words and their meaning; a degeneration of respect for their target, and a re-shaping of our very concept of truth.

Philip Knightly writes for the Sunday Times of London. He is author of several books including ‘The First Casualty: the war correspondent as hero, propagandist and myth-maker, from the Crimea to Vietnam'.

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New Internationalist issue 115 magazine cover This article is from the September 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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