The fundamental purpose of language is to convey meaning. Language is instrumental in the human ability to articulate and express thought because it underpins and limits the ideas which individuals are capable of formulating.
George Orwell’s renowned dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty Four encapsulates the power of language to mould perceptions. Through his well-developed creation of Newspeak, Orwell illustrates that language can be wrought to intentionally sanitise and dilute the real meanings of words, and discriminately gate-keep information. Following a similar vein, Australian Barrister Julian Burnside suggests that if you prod the media’s smoky world of ambiguities, and misinformation, you will find:
“The world is awash with examples of dead language—empty rhetoric dressed up in the current style, or empty maundering with abstraction piled on abstraction—all devoid of content. These are the empty calories, the fast food of modern discourse,” – Truth and Lies, ABC Radio National
These observations prompt reflection upon the relationship between language, conceptual interpretation and the potential this has to influence individuals’ agency.
The orthodox offenders- politicians and the media- do have a tendency to employ strategic language techniques to filter and censor messages and information. These techniques entail euphemisms, political jargon and mollified language, sometimes to a point that the message becomes so abstract it’s almost devoid of meaning.
To illustrate this point, let’s examine the use of euphemisms. When reporting on the Middle East conflict, the word ‘torture’ is now consistently avoided, instead replaced with the phrase, ‘extreme rendition’, implying that this inexcusable treatment is merely an ‘unpleasant practice’. Dead soldiers are, ‘non-operative personnel’, and civilians killed are deemed ‘collateral damage’- defined in the dictionary as ‘destruction or injury beyond that intended or expected’- which hardly does justice to describe the devastating consequences this has on the family of the victim. The bombing and shelling of enemy combatants are referred to as ‘surgical strikes’, however, one might imagine that bombs and rockets are not surgical nor accurate when blowing up people: they kill indiscriminately. Innocent civilians killed in ‘surgical strikes’ are described as ‘soft targets’, the victims of ‘incontinent ordnance’; vocabulary many individuals would not even recognise, and thus, such indistinct, meaningless information is unlikely to register as a concept to be questioned.
Acclaimed author Don Watson, articulately reflects that,
“Every day we are confronted with a debased, depleted sludge: in the media, among corporations and companies, the public services and cultural institutions New styles of business management have forced on us this new public language that makes no sense to outsiders and confounds even those who use it,” – Don Watson, Death Sentence: The decay of public language
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