The silent tyranny of soft language
I wonder how many students at SMC remember George Carlin. He was a legendary comedian who died almost eight years ago, so a recent high school grad attending SMC for the first time this academic year would have been in elementary sc hool then. It’s unlikely that anyone of that age knows who Carlin was at all, let alone the content of any of his bits.
Which is a shame. Carlin’s frustration at humanity’s pretensi ns and his hilarious ability to skewer them so deftly and universally allowed us to not only be honest with ourselves, but I think with others as well. That's something we need more of these days.
Carlin hated euphemisms and language that concealed reality and helped Americans not deal with the world directly. This is what he called “soft language” — the “language that takes the life out of life.”
Though he offered plenty of mundane examples such as how “toilet paper” became “bathroom tissue” and “constipation” became “occasional irregularity,” Carlin’s classic case study was the term “shellshock.” Originally a term used in the first World War, it described when a soldier’s nervous system got to the point of snapping due to, well, the shock of combat (which in WW1 involved a lot of shelling). Carlin pointed out how the condition evolved into “battle fatigue” by World War 2, then “operational exhaustion” in the Korean War, and finally, “post-traumatic stress.” He makes the case that the treatment Vietnam veterans received for this trauma might have been more effective had the language been kept short, sharp, and to the point — words better reflective of the trauma would lead to more immediate care.
Carlin saw this softening as “a function of time,” something Americans did over the years in order to continually linguistically inoculate ourselves so that everything we said was a smidge nicer, but, ultimately, a smidge blander and a smidge vaguer. We’ve added more syllables to words that mean the same thing, and especially like to medicalize or make scientific anything that might seem rough or crude. He saw that a large portion of this softening came from enforced political correctness, coming primarily out of the American left-wing, especially with euphemisms meant to soften the blow for groups that might take offense to labels. For example, how “cripples” became “the differently abled,” or how people who were ugly became “those with severe appearance deficits.”
The push for softer language isn’t always a slow and natural accumulation of jargon meant to help us cope with reality through euphemism. It can be a concentrated effort to confuse assertion with aggression or to assist in officially mandated obfuscation — see how the CIA doesn’t “kill,” it merely “neutralizes targets.”
It’s these effects that are alive and well eight years after Carlin’s death. I’ve seen it over the last several months here at The Corsair and in the general discussion of politics today. This is especially true on college campuses, where the perennial debate on language centers around acceptability and trends toward increasingly marshmallow grade softness.
A professor came into our newsroom one day to remind us that the term we had used to denote a location for a photo credit was “South Central” instead of “South Los Angeles,” the officially recognized term after the LA City Council pronounced it so back in 2003. “South Central” appeared again in our interview with current AS President-Elect Terrance Ware two issues later, and the professor came in to remind us again. I defended our usage of the term on the fact that this was how Ware had referred to the place he had been raised.
After our brief conversation, the professor decided to take our “problematic” language up with our paper’s advisor, attempting to soften our language on the use of a geographical denotation. Of course, this didn't necessarily produce the results the professor wanted. Our advisor did what his title denotes, and merely advised us to consider the complaint.
This was all completely ridiculous. Calling the section of the city that is south of Downtown and centrally located in LA County “South Los Angeles” doesn’t magically ease economic burdens, erase the history of the ‘92 Riots or improve the living conditions of people who reside there. It’s a linguistic dodge meant to “ease a stigma,” which doesn’t actually change anything.
Moreover, it’s simply less accurate and more confusing. Like Ware, I’m an LA County native, but I lived for a large chunk of my youth in the community of San Pedro. San Pedro is officially part of the City of Los Angeles, but it’s further south of downtown than “South Los Angeles.” Officially recognizing a location as the southern district of a city when there is still city further to the south seems a bit ludicrous.
[pullquote speaker="Adam R. Thomas" photo="" align="left" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]But when you force everyone to use terms that are blandly inoffensive, that are obtusely vague and nice, but ugly to the ear, you’re committing to a tyranny of silence. [/pullquote]
Again, consider Carlin’s case study. How Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is applied in the modern day is substantially different even compared to Carlin’s time. Now, the softer, medicalized term has become so generalized that it’s no longer for military use, or even for those who never got the “PT” part. These days PTSD can apparently be self-applied to anyone who has suffered a “trauma” of any kind.
Despite the cornerstone concept of words being that they’re non-violent — as in they cannot physically harm you — plenty of sensitive students in recent years have been insisting that the mean tweets, triggering words and microaggressions they’ve been exposed to were “violent” and have given them PTSD. This in turn has led to students pursuing disciplinary action against guest lecturers, dorm mates and even teachers through Title IX regulations meant to protect students from harm.
I’ve heard the whispered fears of faculty over concerns of potential student complaints for errant offensive words at SMC — especially in the Humanities a nd Social Sciences department. The fear seems quite real. It’s state of affairs was covered nationally in numerous articles last year, eventually culminating in Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s “The Coddling of the American Mind” in last September’s issue of The Atlantic. That article sought to create a history of microagressions and trigger warning mandates since 2013 and propose a number of solutions using psychological principles to aid in teaching methodology and administrative guidance.
But I think the solution to the issue is far simpler: cut the soft language and people will quickly bounce back to a tougher state. Be definitive and direct with description. Don’t let others insist on using euphemisms. Once people see they aren’t going to find much purchase using a victim mentality to shut up speech that scares them, people wi ll remember their old “sticks and stones” rhymes.
The unintended result of the softening of language is the unforeseen success of Donald Trump.
In case no one noticed, a huge part of Trump’s appeal is that he’s blunt, crass and doesn’t seem to care much about his choice of words. If you’re offended by something he says, his attitude is “so what?” This makes him appear to be a tough guy to people sick of how downy and coddled social discourse has become.
This is a guy who frets about the size of his hands and projecting an image of “winning” at all times. Vainglorious boasting and preening have never been considered tough so far as I’ve known. The only reason this image projection can work is due to relativity. It’s only compared to how fragile and weak the candidates who stick to the script of softness that Trump can appear rugged and resilient. It’s only through the m ealy mouthed dishonesty of comfortable colloquialism that he can appear to be authentic.
Trump's supporters say outright that they like him because they believe he may be able to throw off the shackles of the left’s control of language. In a May 27 article in The Atlantic titled "A Dialogue with a 22-Year-Old Trump Supporter," the supporter in question said, "This is a war over how dialogue in America will be shaped. If Hillary wins, we're going to see a further tightening of PC culture. But if Trump wins? If Trump wins, we will have a president that overwhelmingly rejects PC rhetoric."
This concept is mind-boggling to those who want to be sensitive with their own personal word use, I’m sure. But when you force everyone to use terms that are blandly inoffensive, that are obtusely vague and nice, but ugly to the ear, you’re committing to a tyranny of silence. In such a tyrannical state, the loud-mouthed braggart with fiery rhetoric easily becomes the rebellious rogue.
It’s far past time to toughen up. If you don’t, be prepared for Trump.