Truth in Advertising

Euphemism is a subject that keeps coming up on Butterflies and Wheels. That’s not very surprising, because much of what we’re talking about is education, writing, public debate. It’s all about language, and euphemism is a well-known and time-honoured way of trying to make one’s case by prettying up crucial facts. George Orwell was particularly good at pointing this out, but he was certainly neither the first nor the last. The tactic was the issue in three stories we linked to recently: the one about incitement to murder as free speech, the one about death threats as a personality quirk, and today, again, a commentary about about death threats as free speech or freedom of religion or piety.

Do we begin to see a pattern here? It appears that some people want to argue that free speech, or second chances for schoolboys, or piety, are of more value than forbidding or preventing incitement to murder. But if people really do want to argue that, then why are they reluctant to say so? Why do they in fact not say so, but say something else instead? Presumably because they know the non-euphemistic version will sound repellent. ‘We must respect the right of schoolboys to make death threats against their teachers.’ ‘We must respect the right of pious Muslims to make death threats against novelists or journalists who have said something they consider blasphemous.’ ‘We must respect the right of poets to say that a certain group of people should be shot dead.’ But is it only their audience that euphemisers are trying to mislead? Or is it also themselves. Perhaps if they put their own positions into unmistakable language, they would be able to think more clearly about what they are saying. Euphemism tends to confuse in all directions.

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