Americans have lost the art of honest debate. Perhaps better stated, we have thrown it away. Advocates on all sides of political and cultural spectrums cynically manipulate public opinion through focus group–tested obfuscating words and phrases rather than persuade through candid and accurate descriptions of advocacy agendas.
I have grappled with this tactic for over twenty years as an activist against the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia. When I first engaged the issue in 1993, the Hemlock Society was the nation’s foremost organization advocating legalized physician-assisted suicide. Talk about candor in advocacy—hemlock was the poison swallowed by Socrates to carry out his death sentence, and the slogan of the organization was “good life, good death.” No confusion or pretense about the agenda there.
But look what happened. The Hemlock Society eventually merged with one of its own offshoots, Compassion in Dying, to form Compassion and Choices. Talk about euphemistic honey to help the hemlock go down.
Today assisted suicide is described almost exclusively through euphemism, especially in media coverage. The most prominent phrase is “death with dignity.” Several years ago, Compassion and Choices began a campaign to convince reporters not to use the word “suicide” to describe a terminally ill person’s deliberate use of a lethal prescription of drugs. The word “suicide,” Compassion and Choices scolded, is “biased” and steeped in “value judgment.” Worse, in the group’s view, it carries a “social stigma,” causing readers to “be misled.” In contrast, the group claimed that “aid in dying” is “value neutral” since it is undertaken by terminally ill people who take “medication”—another euphemism in this context—who don’t want to die but merely “shorten their dying process.”
The contrary is true, of course. Assisted suicide is the accurate and descriptive term that explicitly describes the act in question. Suicide describes the act, not the motive. Someone who kills himself commits suicide, regardless of whether he does so because of mental instability, a career collapse, or a terminal illness.
None other than the founder of the Hemlock Society, Derek Humphry, protested the use of euphemisms in assisted suicide advocacy in a 2006 letter to the editor published in the Register Guard of Eugene, Oregon. Humphry wrote against using the term “death with dignity” to describe the “lawful act [in Oregon] of a physician helping a terminally ill person to die by handing them a lethal overdose,” as “an affront to the English language.” The proper term should be physician-assisted suicide, Humphry opined, because, “‘Physician’ means a licensed M.D.; ‘assisted’ means helping; and ‘suicide’ means deliberately ending life.”
Humphry ended the letter with a plea to “call a spade, a spade.” Indeed. Otherwise, we can’t have an honest societal debate about one of the more consequential—and potentially culture-changing—issues of our time.
The assisted suicide movement certainly isn’t alone in deploying euphemisms as a political tactic. We all have examples we can name. The “right to an abortion,” rarely used, would be accurate. The ubiquitous “right to choose” and that sound bite of all sound bites, “choice,” are inaccurate because their intent is to hide the subject of the decision. Similarly, the New York Times recently referred to babies who survived late-term abortion—only to be murdered by the abortionist Kermit Gosnell—as “fetuses,” even though there is no such thing as a born fetus.
The intentionally bloodless term “collateral damage,” used during war, is particularly galling in this regard. Collateral in this context means “secondary,” or “indirect.” Damage means “physical harm caused to something in such a way as to impair its value, usefulness, or normal function.” The point of the term is to distance ourselves from the horror that actually happened: the killing and wounding of non-combatants during an act of war.
The proper and accurate term for such a circumstance is “civilian casualties.” Surely war is of sufficient import, and basic respect for these victims should require accurate terminology in describing the carnage.
The struggle over the lexicon about how to properly describe aliens illegally in the United States is another example. I think “illegal alien” is properly descriptive. So too is the somewhat more tactful “undocumented immigrant,” as that describes the lack of formal permission for these people to be residing in the country. But notice that many advocates for legalizing the status of millions of such people in the country now refer to them merely as “migrants” or “immigrants.”
The media play a huge role in this problem. Indeed, it is easy to discern the side of a controversy that the media favor by the words and terms reporters deploy in stories to describe the political combatants. Thus, the Associated Press stylebook requires the use of the following terms involving contentious debates:
Abortion: Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice. Avoid abortionist, which connotes a person who performs clandestine abortions.
Similarly, “illegal alien” is now forbidden by the A.P.:
Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use “illegal” only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant.
Euphemisms are a propagandistic tool of misdirection. They ill serve a free people. But advocates won’t stop manipulating us until we insist that they, in Humphry’s words, “call a spade a spade.”