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ITEM: In an extensive advertising campaign, the U.S. Postal Service said that its "Two Day Priority Mail" service could deliver a two-pound package in two days for $2.90. But a congressional report discovered that 23 percent of the mail in the program took three days to deliver. When asked about this discrepancy between the advertising and the actual service, Robin Marin of the postal service replied: "I would call Priority Mail a delivery commitment, but not a guarantee."
ITEM: The U.S. State Department agency responsible for monitoring arms sales to foreign countries was called the Office of Munitions Control. When the Bush Administration began a campaign to sell more arms to other countries, that name was changed to the Center for Defense Trade.
ITEM: Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, in his dissent in the 1993 case Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, observed, "Today's majority . . . decides that the forced repatriation of the Haitian refugees is perfectly legal, because the word 'return' does not mean return, because the opposite of 'within the United States' is not outside the United States, and because the official charged with controlling immigration has no role in enforcing an order to control immigration."
ITEM: Originally the U.S. Army claimed that the Patriot missile "intercepted" forty-five of forty-seven Scud missiles, but later the army said the Patriot missile intercepted between 40 percent and 70 percent of the Scuds. President Bush claimed that Patriot missiles had killed forty-one of forty-two Scud warheads they had targeted. In testimony before a congressionalcommittee, Brigadier General Robert Drolet was asked to explain if President Bush was correct. General Drolet said the claim was still correct because President Bush "did not say 'killed' or 'destroyed.'" What he said was "intercepted." And what does the army mean by "intercept"? Replied General Drolet, "A Patriot and Scud passed in the sky."
ITEM: Secretary of Defense Les Aspin's 1993 announcement of "the end of the Star Wars era" didn't mean the Star Wars program was dead. It just meant the name had been changed from the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). Even the $3.8 billion budget remained the same. In other words, Star Wars just continued under a different name. As Frank Gaffney, a former Defense Department official, said: "It's sort of rearranging the deck chairs."
As these examples illustrate, doublespeak continues to dominate what passes for public discourse in this nation. Indeed, doublespeak has not simply increased in quantity, it has increased in quality. Doublespeak now goes far beyond such simple phrases as "work reengineering" for laying off workers, "neutralize" for kill, and "economical with the truth" for lying. Doublespeak has become increasingly complex, subtle, and difficult to penetrate.
Doublespeak is language that pretends to communicate but really doesn't. It is language that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable. Doublespeak is language that avoids or shifts responsibility, language that is at variance with its real or purported meaning. It is language that conceals or prevents thought; rather than extending thought, doublespeak limits it.
Doublespeak is not a matter of subjects and verbs agreeing; it is a matter of words and facts agreeing. Basic to doublespeak is incongruity, the incongruity between what is said or left unsaid, and what really is. It is the incongruity between the word and the referent, between seems and be, between the essential function of languagecommunicationand what doublespeak does: mislead, distort, deceive, inflate, circumvent, obfuscate. Doublespeak turns lies told by politicians into "strategic misrepresentations," "reality augmentation," or "terminological inexactitudes," and turns ordinary sewage sludge into "regulated organic nutrients" that do not stink but "exceed the odor threshold."
As doublespeak fills our public discourse, we have become more and more hardened to its presence. Our tolerance for doublespeak has increased along with the growth of double-speak. While the simpler examples such as "sales credits" for bribes and kickbacks, "mental activity at the margins" for insanity, and "transportation counselors" for people who sell cars still usually elicit some contemptuous remarks, the more skillful and subtle forms of doublespeak too often pass unchallenged and unanalyzed. More importantly, they pass with no one calling attention to the way in which they insult our intelligence, corrupt public discourse, and ultimately undermine that which holds us together as a nation.
Language is the glue that holds us together, and by "us" I mean not just the United States as a nation but all human beings. Without language we would have no nations, no human society of any kind. Human society can exist only because of the phenomenon of language.
Language is also the primary tool for the survival of the human species. Compared to many other animals, humans are a pretty sorry lot when it comes to survival based upon purely physical capabilities. But with language humans can and have survived, sometimes to the detriment of many non-language capable species. Language builds culture and society as well as providing the means for survival in an often hostile environment.
Like anything that is so important, so basic, and so pervasive in our lives, language is taken for granted and often goes unnoticed. Like the air we breathe, and as absolutely necessary for our survival, language is simply there for us to use. But just as we have learned that we need to pay attention to the quality of the air we breathe each day, so we need to learn to pay attention to the quality of the language we use each day.
I do not mean that we should "clean up our language" in the sense that we speak "proper" English, whatever that might be. Or that we should pronounce words correctly, whatever a correct pronunciation is. Nor do I mean that we should avoid all obscene, vulgar, or improper language, whatever that might be. What I do mean is that we should insist that public language, the language of public discourse, the language we use as a society and a nation to run our public affairs, should be as clear, complete, and direct as possible.
Whenever peoplepoliticians, citizens, pundits, television news anchors, or anyone engaging in public discoursevoice an opinion, we should insist that they include the clear statement that their language simply reflects reality as they see it. Their words are that, just words, and what they say is not reality, just their version of reality. We then have the right and even the obligation to evaluate their words, their version of reality, and determine whether we agree with them.
I hasten to add here that I am not denying the existence of reality. I believe there is a "there" out there. And I also believe that we can all agree on a lot of that reality. You and I can both see the cars on the highway, the trees in the forest, the potholes in the streets, and the rain on the window. I find nothing to debate in perceiving reality.
However, something happens when we perceive reality and then interpret that reality by means of language. And that's what we do with language: interpret reality as we, each one of us, see and experience reality. Thus, the language each of us uses is not reality but a representation of reality, a personal interpretation of the world as we know it. In this sense distortion is inherent in the very act of using language. As Werner Heisenberg noted, "what we observe is not nature itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning."6 It is precisely because each of us sees and experiences the world differently that language becomes our most important means for coming to some kind of agreement on our individual experiences, on how we see the world.
Let's take a simple example. A doll is a doll, right? You know a doll when you see one. But when the Mattel toy company started importing G.I. Joe action figures, the U.S. Customs people were not amused. Those are dolls and subject to the import tariff on dolls, claimed the customs people. Not at all, replied Mattel, these are action figures because these are for boys to play with. Since boys don't play with dolls, these can't be dolls, they must be action figures. After an eight-year court battle, Mattel's version of reality lost to the U.S. Customs version and G.I. Joe dolls are now subject to the import tariff on dolls. Mattel pays the tariff, but it still puts the label "action figure" on G.I. Joe and calls Joe an "action figure" in all its advertising.7
So what is Joe? A doll or an action figure? As we'll see, Joe is whatever we decide to call him. For the courts and U.S. Customs Joe is a doll. For Mattel and its advertising agency Joe is an action figure. For all the little boys who play with Joe, and their parents, he's probably an action figure because boys don't play with dolls. This disagreement over what to call Joe leads us to the problem of fuzziness in language.