“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”
Who told the first lie? No one can ever know who, when, or why, but we can be sure the first lie involved language — words originally intended to reveal and explain to misled and conceal instead. Over time it has developed into a fine art, and is now endemic, so much so that most people recognize the word euphemism.
What harm do euphemisms cause? They cover up the truth to mislead and shape public opinion. Sometimes they're relatively harmless and usually something we've all encountered. No one buys used cars anymore; they’re all pre-owned. "Used” sounds too much like "used up." An advertised special may not really be that special. Recently I bought an item in the grocery store that was higher priced than the week before even though it was marked "special."
Since neither lies nor truth exist in a vacuum, perhaps truth leads to more truth and lies lead to more lies, some more serious than others. We’ve all heard of white lies, but are there also black lies?
If so, perhaps the most egregious of those would be the Third Reich’s labeling of its efforts to murder millions of innocent civilians during WWII in that regime’s death camps as “The Final Solution,” as if it were the answer to a math problem.
In the present day, euphemisms are alive and well, and disseminated more widely than ever. For the most part, they pass under the radar. Why is that a concern? Because words shape our lives, often decide what we will or will not do, and either deaden or sharpen our sensitivity to the world around us and the creatures who inhabit it.
The way we treat animals — or, more precisely, the way we conceal how we treat animals — is a prime example.
Describing how an animal is killed can be graphic and unsettling. The solution to the negative reaction the public is likely to have is for hunting organizations, government institutions, game clubs, state and national departments of fisheries and wildlife to visit a kind of Euphemism Central, a veritable storehouse of words like crop, harvest, stock, yield, cull, bag, and surplus, which appear in common usage from technical reports to local newspapers.
What that does, as Dr. Gosia Bryga has eloquently written about on Medium, is “strip us of compassion towards non-human animals ... who have been 'turned into crops to be utilized and harvested for food.” According to Bryga, what happens when we forget that animals are sentient creatures who feel many of the same emotions we do.
“Wildlife is not a cultivated crop destined to be reaped and gathered when the right time comes. Harvesting of animals has nothing to do with the image of a farmer mowing the hay and turning it into bales as the setting sun beams down on swaying stalks. It has nothing to do with picking up grapes and turning them into wine. It has nothing to do with nurturing the land — plowing, planting, weeding and watering — and then watching the efforts of this hard work bear fruit.
No, killing animals is not like that; it snuffs out life instead of nurturing it. Animals are not harvested or culled. They are killed, murdered, slaughtered. Only when we start using a different language — the language that is truthful to the reality it depicts — will we be able to awaken ourselves from a slumber of our indifference and take responsibility for how we relate to nature.”
What’s being concealed from us as we harvest that bear, bag that deer, cull that herd? The stark fact of what’s being done in our name and with our tacit approval, as if animals don’t suffer or bleed or even die because of what we allow. We can’t address cruelty we don’t know about when it’s been sanitized by the power of euphemisms. We need to call things what they are so we identify them and change them. Look at a small sample of what passes for ‘sport’ these days in Maine and elsewhere — ambushing a bear while it eats human junk food; drowning a beaver caught in a trap; shooting and skinning a bobcat for a trophy — it’s all killing. We should work together to end it.
Don Loprieno is a published author and has maintained a life-long interest in education and history. He lives in Bristol, Maine where he is active in community affairs. Don is a frequent contributor to a radio program called Into the Wilderness broadcast Tuesday evenings from 8-8:30 on WMPG FM 90.9.