Category Archives: Politics

The strange double-euphemization of abortion

One of the TV channels in Taiwan recently broadcast a program introducing the two main candidates in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, and I watched it with my wife.

One of the points it dealt with was Mr. Romney’s changing positions on the issue of abortion — and it managed to discuss the issue for some time without ever actually using the word abortion. It was all “a woman’s right to choose” and “Mr. Romney’s opinion on the subject of life” and other such evasions. Whoever was responsible for doing the Chinese subtitles didn’t bother to gloss these euphemisms, either, but rendered them literally. When, several minutes into the discussion, someone finally let the a-word slip, my wife said, “Oh, so that’s what they were talking about!”


Euphemism is of course rampant in the world of politics, but it’s unusual for both sides on an issue to feel the need to euphemize themselves. As I mentioned in this post, insistence on euphemisms for one’s own group is an expression of weakness or an admission of deviance, an acknowledgment that one needs euphemizing. The prissier a given group is about how they are referred to, the lower you can infer their social standing to be. And unilaterally deciding to euphemize a group which has not asked to be euphemized (as in “a gentleman of the Hebrew persuasion”) is an act of aggression, an assertion of social dominance. As such, euphemisms tend to be one-sided; the subordinate group euphemizes itself but the dominant group does not. In the case of the abortion debate, though, both sides prefer Orwellian crap about “life” and “choice” over straight talk.


Of the two euphemisms, pro-choice is the easier to understand, since no more direct option is really available. Pro-abortion is unacceptable because it implies that one is actually in favor of abortion itself, as opposed to believing merely that abortion should be legal. A person who thinks abortion should be legal isn’t necessarily “pro-abortion” any more than a person who opposes Prohibition is “pro-alcohol.” In the latter case, the convenient term anti-Prohibition is available, but nothing similar suggests itself in the case of abortion.

However, that logic applies only when a convenient one-word designation is needed. “Pro-choice candidates” is a more convenient phrase than “candidates who believe abortion should be legal” — but no comparable excuse can be made for locutions like “I support a woman’s right to choose,” no less wordy than the synonymous “a woman’s right to abortion.” Such expressions really can’t be seen as anything other than euphemisms — as tacit admissions that one is ashamed of one’s own position.

But still it makes sense for “pro-choice” people to euphemize their position. Abortion is an ugly word for an ugly act (something which even “pro-choice” people can recognize, precisely because they are not really “pro-abortion”), and it makes good political sense for its champions to avoid mentioning it directly.


Pro-life is harder to explain. Anti-abortion would be perfectly accurate (unlike pro-abortion for the other side), and it would seem to make good rhetorical sense to use raw, direct, un-euphemized terms for bad things which one is against. Anti-war activists chant “Stop the killing!” — not “Stop the defense!” — so what accounts for the “pro-life” camp’s reluctance to call a spade a spade?

One possibility is that what the pro-lifers want to euphemize away is not abortion, but anti-. Given our current culture’s aversion to anything that smacks of “negativity,” it may be that it’s always rhetorically better to define oneself as pro- something rather than anti-something. I don’t think that’s an adequate explanation, though, since no one seems to feel the need to euphemize anti-war or anti-rape movements.

A better explanation, I think is that both abortion and opposition to abortion need to be euphemized, but for different reasons. Abortion is euphemized because it is intrinsically unpleasant to consider, and opposition to abortion is euphemized because it is the culturally weaker of the two camps.

If this is the correct explanation, we should expect double-euphemization in cases where the culturally dominant (i.e., liberal) side of the controversy is also the more intrinsically unpleasant (bad or disgusting) one — and that rule does indeed seem to hold. Same-sex marriage is another controversy in which both sides prefer euphemisms like “marriage equality” and “defense of marriage” (or even just plain “marriage”, which, confusingly, can be used as a euphemism for either side!), and as with abortion it’s a controversy in which the “yucky” side is culturally dominant. The anti-war and anti-rape movements, on the other hand, are culturally dominant movements against “yucky” things and thus do not need to be euphemized.


Filed under Language, Politics, Rhetoric

When the existence of the message is the message

From Ronald Wintrobe’s The Political Economy of Dictatorship, pp. 66-67:

An even more subtle point is that the party’s totalitarian ideology and propaganda may have succeeded in building its reputation, irrespective of whether the party line is believed or not, in the same way that, according to Klein and Leffler (1981), advertising promotes the reputation of and brand loyalty to a capitalist firm. In their model it is not the content of advertising but its volume (the accumulated stock) that provides information. Because better products are advertised more — or, more precisely, because producers have a greater incentive to accumulate a larger stock of advertising capital for higher quality products — advertising can signal quality: The buyer who knows nothing about two products except that one has been advertised more than the other can still correctly infer that it is indeed of higher quality. However, that repetitive quality is surely characteristic of totalitarian ideology and propaganda. That is, it is not the content of a message but the number of times it is repeated (the magnitude of the party’s investment in its promises) that contributes to reputation and promotes loyalty.

Of course, words are cheap — hence the typical resort to exaggeration, hyperbole, and repetition, in part, as a way of compensating for this truth. Why would Pravda devote two-thirds of its space for nine months to the publication of greetings to Stalin on the occasion of his seventieth birthday? As in the case of advertising, one cannot discover the meaning of ideology by looking solely at its content (“Happy Birthday, Stalin!”). One important aspect of the communication is not its content, but the frequency with which the message is repeated.

This reminds me of Václav Havel’s comments (quoted here) about a greengrocer who puts a “Workers of the world, unite!” sign in his window. According to Havel, the real message of the sign is “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” — or, more bluntly, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.”

Sometimes the real message isn’t the message itself but rather the fact that the message exists and is being communicated by such-and-such a person (group, newspaper, etc.) in such-and-such a manner.

This kind of thing isn’t limited to totalitarian ideology. As Wintrobe mentions, advertising is another obvious example — celebrity endorsements in particular. The real message of an ad is not, “A famous football player likes it, so it must be good”; it’s, “This company is so successful that they can pay famous football players to endorse their products.”

The same goes for most forms of protest and political demonstration. Someone once told me about some protesters he saw wearing “All Homos in HELL!” T-shirts at a gay pride parade and wondered what on earth they thought they were going to accomplish. Obviously, if someone thinks homosexuality is okay, those T-shirts aren’t going to convince him otherwise. But the real message here isn’t the content of the slogan being displayed; it’s the fact that the slogan is being displayed. Exactly the same thing is true of the gay pride parade itself; no one who doesn’t already agree with them is going to be convinced by their slogans, either. The real message both groups want to send is simply, “There are a lot more of us than you think, and we’re organized.”

Name-dropping is another example. The content of anecdotes about celebrities is mostly irrelevant; the important message is, “I know famous people! I call them by their first names!”

Even most ordinary small talk probably falls into this category. The point is not to convey or elicit any particular information about the weather or my day at work or whatever, but to send the message, “We’re friends. We share things with each other.”

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Muhammad vs. Paul on slavery

I’m still reading the Qur’an. I found this passage on slavery.

God maketh comparison between a slave the property of his lord, who hath no power over anything, and a free man whom We have Ourselves supplied with goodly supplies, and who giveth alms therefrom both in secret and openly. Shall they be held equal? No: praise be to God! But most men know it not (16:77).

Compare this with the familiar line from Paul’s epistle to the Galatians:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (3:28).

At first glance, Paul seems much closer than Muhammad to our modern ideas about freedom and equality, but I’m not sure that’s really the case. Paul’s point is not that all people should be made equal, but that in God’s eyes they already are — that the question of whether a person is Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, is simply not important. Paul’s writings make it very clear that he saw no need for Greeks to be made into Jews, and I suspect that he would likewise have seen no need for the slaves to be set free. Abolitionists can argue that if all men are equal in the eyes of God we ought therefore to treat them equally in society, but Paul’s writings could just as easily be used to dismiss slavery as a non-issue.

Muhammad, on the other hand, seems to be enthusiastically endorsing the institution of slavery, praising God that the slave and the free man are not held equal. I think there are two ways of reading his statement, though. Is God saying that slavery is appropriate because men are not equal, or is he saying that men are not equal because slavery exists? Under the first reading, the message is: “Should all men be held equal and equally deserving of freedom? No! Some should be free and others should be slaves.” The second reading would gloss the same passage thus: “Should we pretend [as Paul does] that being a slave is just as good as being free, that the slave and the free man are in fact equal? No! Being free is clearly better.” The latter reading is supported by Muhammad’s focus on the ability to give alms as the distinguishing feature of a free man. If a free man is better able to do good and serve God than a slave is, the natural conclusion is that it would please God if every man were free. Muhammad clearly thinks that his point about slaves is a controversial one (“most men know it not”), and, given that he is clearly familiar with Christian teachings and often argues against them in the Qur’an, I wonder if this passage might even be intended as a direct response to Paul’s feelgooderism: No, Paul, slaves are free men are not to be considered equal, and all men will not be equal until all men are free.

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Filed under Christianity, Ethics, Islam, Politics

Hate crimes

Chrs wrote a post about hate crimes some time ago, and, while the post itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it got me thinking about the topic. After mulling it over for a couple of weeks, I’ve surprised myself by coming to the conclusion that, yes, hate crime laws are probably a good idea.

Motives are relevant because they affect the likelihood that the person will commit a similar crime in the future. A crime of passion is generally a response to a very unusual situation that is not likely to recur, and it can thus be punished more leniently. When the passion in question is the indiscriminate hatred of any and all members of a given group, though, that’s a different story. A man who flies into a homicidal rage when he finds his wife in bed with his best friend is obviously less of a menace to society than is someone who flies into a homicidal rage every time he sees a black/white/Jew/homosexual/Muhammad cartoon/whatever. People who can be moved to violence by such an everyday experience are dangerous, probably more dangerous than your average violent criminal.

When I say I support hate crime legislation, I should specify that I’m talking only about criminal behavior which happens to be motivated by open-ended hatred, not about the idea that such hatred or the expression thereof should itself be a crime. “Hate speech” laws are a very bad idea and are carried to outrageous extremes in some countries, going so far as to outlaw unpopular opinions about morality or history — punishing people who say that homosexuality is evil, for example, or that the Holocaust never happened. Holocaust denial laws are especially ridiculous — they’re like defamation laws in reverse, declaring the Nazis guilty and forbidding anyone to say that they’re innocent. (Hmmm… Does that mean Holocaust deniers are guilty of “anti-defamation”?) Aside from being tyrannical, such censorship is probably counterproductive; suppressing an opinion or movement by force just encourages people to think there must be something to it.

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Religious labels for kids

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins comes out against the use of religious labels for children, arguing that we should find phrases such as “Christian child” and “Muslim child” just as bizarre and inappropriate as, say, “liberal child,” “Keynesian child” or “secular humanist child.” To describe children in religious terms is to label them “with the cosmic and theological opinions of their parents” — which is surely just as silly and offensive as ascribing to them age-inappropriate political or economic opinions, right? Dawkins chalks it all up to “the weirdly privileged status of religion.”

But wait a minute — do people really ascribe cosmic and theological opinions to young children? Although the act of writing this sentence will make it untrue, Google currently returns zero hits for “monotheist child,” zero hits for “Thomist child,” zero hits for “dualist child,” and zero hits for “premillennialist child.” Why? Because these are actually labels for theological opinions — as opposed to “Catholic child” and “Jewish child,” which are labels for group membership. Very young children might not be capable of having coherent opinions about complex topics, but they are certainly capable of group membership, whether in a formal organization like the Roman Catholic Church or a cultural entity like Judaism. Most people will accept group labels for children, even secular ones like “American citizen” or “Cub Scout,” and will balk at opinion labels, even religious ones like “monotheist.” There doesn’t seem to be any double standard at work here.

So I don’t see anything wrong with mentioning what religion a child belongs to. Of course there’s a case to be made that children ought not to be recruited into religious groups, but the fact is that they are, so we might as well call a spade a spade. Better to acknowledge the true state of affairs — that nearly every religious group in the world recruits children, especially children born to group members — than to deal in prissy euphemisms like “a child of Catholic parents.”

Actually, I have a hard time getting all indignant about parents indoctrinating their children. (Dawkins, with his characteristic tact, proclaims it equivalent to, if not worse than, child abuse.) If you really believe that something is true and important, then of course you’re going to want to teach it to your children. If you don’t, there’s something wrong with you. I would question the patriotism of any parents who said, “We both love our country, but we’ve decided not to raise Junior as a citizen. When he’s old enough, he can decide for himself which country he wants to be loyal to.” I’d question the morality of any parents who chose not to give their children any moral guidance, leaving them to “decide for themselves.” And I’d question the religious seriousness of any parents who chose not to indoctrinate their children. I can’t get behind the idea that you’re free to believe whatever crazy thing you like but that you mustn’t teach it to your children.

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Filed under Ethics, Language, Politics