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Foul language

As politicians dumb down their speech, Orwellian Newspeak becomes media news-speak.


Veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass received a lifetime achievement award last week in New York for her unrelenting coverage of the oppression of Palestinians in Israel's occupied territories. During her acceptance speech to the International Women's Media Foundation, Hass confessed that she didn't really have a lifetime of "achievement," only a long record of failure. "It is the failure to make the Israeli and the international public use and accept correct terms and words," she said, adding that Orwellian Newspeak is flourishing in the Middle East. Hass pointed, for example, to the frequently used term "peace process" which hides the reality of continuing Israeli attacks on Palestinians. (The recent Israeli military assault on Gaza killed about 1,400 Palestinians while 13 Israelis died, four of them victims of Israeli fire.)

"The peace process terminology," Hass said, "blurs the perception of real processes that are going on: a special Israeli blend of military occupation, colonialism, apartheid, Palestinian limited self-rule in enclaves and a democracy for Jews." She added that the official peace language adopted by media conceals the long list of everyday restrictions imposed on Palestinians---Gazan students, for example, are prohibited from studying at a Palestinian university in the West Bank only 70 kilometres away, while Palestinians over 18 in the West Bank are not allowed to visit their parents in Gaza---unless the parents are dying.

Hass's reference to Newspeak recalled the language created by Big Brother's totalitarian regime in George Orwell's novel 1984. Orwell wrote that Newspeak was designed to suppress thought by eliminating words that referred to concepts such as freedom, justice or even rebellion. 1984 was obviously intended as satire, but Orwell also wrote a 1946 essay about the grim state of ordinary political language, which, he said, was "designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable." Just think, for example, of the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation" as a cover for torture or Stephen Harper's frequent references to Canada's "mission" in Afghanistan---a benign description of a bloody, protracted war. During a visit to Kandahar in May, Harper declared "our mission is to leave Afghanistan to its people as a viable country, a more peaceful country, a country in control of its own destiny." He bragged that his government had supplied the best available tools for this peace-building mission: military helicopters, transport planes and tanks. Indeed. As the slogan in 1984 says: "War is peace."

Yes, our politicians routinely resort to their own kinds of Newspeak, some of it calculated to make them seem like real nice folks. Even the ultra-right-wing Canadian hack David Frum seemed shocked when he signed onto George W. Bush's speechwriting team in 2001. In a book about his work at the White House, Frum writes that Karen Hughes, Bush's chief spin doctor, imposed strict rules: "She barred the word business," Frum notes, "businesses were always to be called 'employers.' The word parents was strictly forbidden: We were to say 'moms and dads' instead. The phrase tax cuts was unaccept-able---too drastic; instead we were to offer 'tax relief,' like a healing balm."

Frum writes that Hughes disliked verbs because they conveyed action, not feeling. If verbs had to be used, Hughes decreed they should be as vague as possible. Verbs like "create," "act" and "keep in mind" were OK. "Above all things, she hated the word but, a word that suggested harsh choices, conflict, even confrontation. A text for the president must never read: 'We have done much, but we must do more.' It should say instead, 'We have done much, and we must do more.'"

Often it's hard for journalists to combat such warm and fuzzy political language, with its frequent references to peace and democracy. Amira Hass calls it "official language that encourages people not to know." She ended her speech by stressing again that her own efforts to convey the stark realities of Palestinian oppression were "a remarkable failure for a journalist."

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