DRESSING UP A PIG


In 1967, when we began heavily bombing North Vietnam, we called it a “protective reaction.”  Doonesbury asked “what are the casualties?”  The answer, in the same cartoon, was, “On language, very great.”  The following year, we heard, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”  We use derogatory terms I won’t write here to de-humanize an enemy, since it is easier to kill somebody one doesn’t think is human.

In many instances those somebodies are women and children.  Let’s start with circumcising women, which I will call by a proper name: “Genital mutilation.” This has no medical reason, unlike male circumcision, which completely prevents penile cancer and makes HIV less prone to be transmitted.  I don’t remember mine, and I don’t believe it caused lasting harm, but I am open to evidence on the latter, just not the former.

I read recently that Reuters refuses to use the term “Terrorists,” and the Associated Press now refuses to use “Islamic terrorists” or “illegal aliens.”  This is equally bad as dehumanizing an enemy.

I’m a liberal, but I am a strong believer in using the proper word to describe a situation or condition.  An improper word or phrase, used frequently, can become harmful if it becomes ingrained in the vocabulary.

Examples of the latter include “The Death Tax,” which is the estate tax.  There is a threshold over which the estate is be taxed at about 40%.  The threshold varies and is now $5.25 million. The proper term is “Estate Tax.”

“Death Panels” were used when during the debate on the Affordable Health Care Act (called Obama Care, another misuse of the language, since the Congress passed the law, and the Supreme Court upheld it).  One part of the bill was to have Medicare pay for counseling on End of Life planning.  As a neurologist who dealt with end of life issues, often when no other physician was willing to do so, I found that lack of advance directives was a significant impediment to decision making families had to make, when a member had irreversible brain injury.  I saw families torn apart over the issue.  Paying to have these discussions with competent people in advance seemed to me to be a good use of money, since the amount was 1-5% of the cost of one day in intensive care, and many of these people languished, and that is the proper word, in intensive care for days, weeks, or in some instances months. I saw this often.  Many elderly want their estate going to their offspring, not for futile, unwanted care. ICU beds are in short supply, so having them used to house patients who were going to die soon, when seriously ill people could benefit from those same beds, made no sense.  I made sure neither of my parents lingered.  They made me promise not to let it happen to them.

I practiced in a Catholic Hospital, and the Church had no problem with discontinuation of futile care.  Nor should anybody else.  I used terms like “die,” and “death”, hard words, but final in meaning.  “Expire” is too soft, and “pass on” implies something I don’t believe in.

Some of the terms we use would be funny if they weren’t so pernicious in their ability to dress up a pig in such a fashion that people forget it is still a pig.  “Pre-owned” means “Used”, half the letters and twice as easy to understand.  “Fastest growing” is another term for “smaller,” since large firms need proportionately more money to grow a given per cent. If my firm grosses $1 million a year, and next year it grosses $1.1 million, it has grown 10%.  If my competitor grosses $100 million a year and next year grosses $105 million, his has grown 5%, but his share of the market has increased nearly 4%, from 100/101  to 105/106.1.  The amount of new business in the market has increased $5.1 million, and nearly 98% of that increase went to my competitor.

We can say “undocumented immigrants,” and the term is correct.  But people who cross borders without going through customs and immigration are violating the law.  That is why we have the word “illegal.”  There may be all sorts of reasons for the person to do so, and there may be appropriate words for those reasons–fleeing a repressive regime, starvation, an epidemic of disease.  But the person is still performing an illegal act.  Whether the act is immoral is another matter altogether.  We saw during the last financial crisis that people did immoral acts that were not necessary illegal.  We should not confuse immoral and illegal.

Beheading a British soldier in broad daylight and saying that his country is responsible for killing millions of Muslims daily is a gross act of religious terror and exaggeration.  [Mathematical note:  “millions of people daily” would require about 5 years to have no Muslims on the planet, using a minimum number of “2” for the plural and 2 billion for the number of Muslims.  This error was not brought out in any article.]  Terror scares people, and that act scared the hell out of me.  Since this was a brutal act carried out in the name of religion, both the act and the modifier belong. I fail to see why Reuters won’t use the term.  Indeed, a mullah interviewed on British television refused to call the beheading an “abhorrence,” using only the word “shocking,” which is far milder and has many different meanings.  Abhor is very clear, and the man refused to use the word.

My liberalism has limits.  When I saw Corregidor, the American Cemetery in Manila, the prison where men drowned during high tide, I felt strongly that we had a place in the world that we had earned through the blood of men who fought and died in places not many people know of today, like Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Leyte and Lingayen Gulfs, Bataan, Kwajalein, Enewetak, and Saipan.

The issue we face as a country is how we deal with a very nasty world without compromising our values.  For if we become what our enemy is, then we have lost.  But if we allow the enemy to proceed without resistance, then we have lost as well.  The world is not black and white but a large shade of gray.  Any time the gray hides something evil, we need to shine a spotlight on that evil and address it.

With a carefully chosen word or phrase, because it is proper, regardless of who may be offended.

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