Saturday, August 11, 2007

Torturespeak and Language Rules

Language is uncanny, especially when it's manipulated by people with evil intent and uneasy consciences. In an earlier post on torturespeak, I referred to Marguerite Feitlowitz's brilliant observation that torturers rip "benign domestic nouns" from their normal contexts and appropriate them as descriptions of their own disgusting practices. Torturers in Latin America, for example, took the ordinary word "disappear" and gave it an entirely new and sinister meaning.

So torturers can demonize ordinary language. But they can also use language as a shield that hides the demonic nature of their actions. As I argued in yesterday's post, they sometimes use language that neutralizes the horror of what they do. "Torture," for example, becomes "enhanced interrogation." Once again, ordinary, benign, domestic words are appropriated. Torturers malfigure language as well as bodies and spirits.
In her Eichmann in Jerusalem, which I've referred to on several occasions in this blog, Hannah Arendt notes that the Nazis in charge of the "final solution" invented an entire lexicon of neutralization to shield their real intentions. They adopted a "language rule" (Sprachregelung) which generally banished "bald words" (or, as Feitlowitz might put it, "malignant" ones) such as "extermination," "liquidation, or even "killing," and replaced them with neutral code words: "evacuation" (Aussiedlung), "special treatment" (Sonderbehandlung), "resettlement" (Umsiedlung), "labor in the East" (Arbeitseinsatz im Osten). Arendt perceptively notes that "The net effect of this language system was not to keep these people ignorant of what they were doing, but to prevent them from equating it with their old, 'normal' knowledge of murder and lies." (Chapter VI)
This is a powerful insight. The language rule of torturers that neutralizes language is motivated by the fact that what torturers do is utterly unacceptable, both to themselves and to the public, if it's equated with the ordinary meaning of "torture." Psychotic child molesters kidnap, torture, and rape. Drunken, abusive husbands torture. Leering, scar-faced, monocle-wearing Nazi sadists torture. Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin torture. How could any nation accept, much less condone, this kind of behavior as its own? How could torturers, at least the ones who aren't completely insane, accept this as their professional description?
So a torturing nation shifts into linguistic neutralization. We don't torture. They, the enemy, the bad guys, are the ones who torture. All we do is interrogate in enhanced ways. And even if at times our interrogation can get a bit "rough," all that really means is just enough discomfort to the prisoner to persuade him to tell us what we need to know. And if things do get out of hand, and circumstances force us to publicly confess that torture, not enhanced interrogation, really took place, we have two separate modes of neutralization to fall back on. Either the torture was accidental, performed by misguided individuals and not condoned by officialdom; or the torture was tragically necessary to protect tens of thousands of Americans in the Homeland. In the first case, the torture is neutralized by reducing it the same status as child molestation: the work of a single, fucked-up loner. In the second case, the torture is neutralized by appealing, with regret, to a greater good: sometimes the noble thing to do is dirty one's hands for the good of one's country.
Curious, that we're so adept at spotting and condemning another culture's Sprachregelung, but so blind to our own. Perhaps such deception is a necessary survival tactic. But this doesn't make it any less disgusting.
Photo credit: "Book Burning," Joe Moorman.