“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
It would appear that the Obama administration has chosen to pursue this looking-glass linguistic philosophy, and Secretary of State Kerry is clearly the Humpty Dumpty in Chief. And while they probably are aware of the deceit that is being practiced, they certainly do not see the silliness. Politicians have of course always needed to be careful of exactly what they say, and this is all the more a concern in an age when there are microphones and cameras everywhere. But inasmuch as a politician has an agenda and is inclined to keep it simple for the voters (and his colleagues), this care does not lead to clear and unambiguous statements but rather distortions of the truth and ultimately outright lies.
It begins with euphemisms, which is an easy approach since Americans are accustomed to dealing in euphemisms for all sorts of things that are for some reason embarrassing, such as sex and body functions. The most notorious, and clever, euphemism is well known: collateral damage. This illustrates perfectly the goal of such expressions, that is, to defuse statements that are unpleasant or counterproductive by attempting to remove the accompanying imagery. Unlike “civilian casualties,” “collateral damage” is colorless, suggesting broken windows rather than mangled bodies of women and children.
Less prominent but a favorite of mine is “degrade” as a substitute for destroy, blow apart or kill, as in “the Republican Guard division was degraded.” Most listeners will not immediately imagine what that actually means: burned and dismembered bodies scattered all over the place. “Degrading” Assad’s assets sure sounds more mellow than blowing things apart, including Syrians. It is a pity that generals are not required to explain in precise detail what occurred or is about to occur.
We have now reached the point where euphemisms will not suffice and words are simply redefined to mean what the speaker wants them to mean. This had already caught my attention when a car bomb parked in Times Square was described as a “weapon of mass destruction,” dramatically increasing the magnitude of the charges against the perpetrator. Or when people who leak classified information to the press are labeled “spies,” despite the absence of any foreign power, which I had thought integral to the definition of espionage. Also, when did every inquiry about future developments (e.g., if x happens what will you do) become a “hypothetical” and thus not worthy of an answer?
Well, Secretary Dumpty has now raised the bar extremely high, asserting that bombing Syria would not constitute a “war” because no American troops would enter the country. Indeed? For millennia humans have defined war as doing violence to another tribe or state, whether it was undertaken with spears or cruise missiles. Certainly, virtually all Americans, including Kerry and his friends, would consider it an act of war if someone bombed this country, and because of such an attack we went so far as to declare war essentially against an idea, terrorism. According to Secretary Kerry the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would not constitute an act of war since there were no Japanese “boots on the ground.”
This is all blatant misuse of the language in the service of dissembling, but no one really cares. The military is after all simply using technical terms, which they do all the time, and people, I suspect, now think first of collateral damage rather than civilian casualties. For the most part, however, Americans do not care because all but the stupidest no longer believe anything politicians say. Besides, the citizen who agrees with the policy will be quick to embrace the Humpty Dumpty philosophy.