Rhetoric, Goodwill and Dishonest Terminology

Code Words and Loaded Language

It is not necessary to be an expert in Critical Discourse Analysis in order to understand that language can be loaded. Most people are familiar with ‘Code Words‘, the notion that words can be chosen that appear to mean one thing, but mean another within a target Discourse Community. Often these code words are chosen so as to evoke emotion within a targeted subset of the general audience, and thus operate as loaded language.

Terms like “Code Words” and “Loaded Language” mean something distinct from “Jargon” or “Terms of Art”. “Jargon” and “Terms of Art” are expressions used within a professional discourse community that capture an idea in some way essential to carrying out the professional communication more efficiently. They are a shorthand for ideas that are developed through training, study or professional experience. In this way they have come to be the Shibboleth that denotes membership within the Discourse Community, and thus an identifier of a professional. The secondary meaning of “professional”, being an association with positive, “professional” values, ethics and expertise.

The notion that jargon denotes a profession has not gone unnoticed, and has lead to rhetorical constructions in order to create the appearance of an unified profession. Managerial Pseudojargon, for example, is widely used by managers who oversee engineers. The effect of this language is to create a rhetorical appearance of a profession so as to place managers as professionals on an equal social hierarchy with the engineering professionals they supervise. Thus, the intent behind the development of Managerial Pseudojargon is to tie value notions of professionalism to corporate management. Whether or not it is necessary for a management profession to exist is beside the point, the fact that Managerial Pseudojargon exists speaks to at least an emotional need for the appearance of professional values and the existence of meaning beyond the bare words themselves.

This example underlines the point: language carries meaning beyond what the words themselves assert on the surface. The use of a jargon term carries the meaning of that term, but also carries notions of the values associated with professionalism, a “secondary meaning” to borrow a term of art from Trademark law.

Jargon is thus a form of Loaded Language because it carries secondary meaning. For example, “on the surface” is an analogy for “obvious”, while a lawyer might say “prima facie” to mean the same thing. Different values attach to each word, while the meaning of all three remains the same. The word chosen reflects the rhetorical impression that the speaker desires: to communicate an idea, to identify oneself as a part of a discourse community, to appeal to the listener, or to do all of the above. “On the surface” and “obvious” communicate the idea, while “prima facie” may suggest “education, legal, professional, pretentious, old”.

While jargon use may be esoteric, consider everyday choices. A plant may be a “weed” or “flower”. The choice of word denotes the moral value judgment of the speaker on the plant referred to. Words carry the baggage of all our previous experiences. Those experiences give the words meaning and allow us to communicate both the subtle and the plain. “Weed” may trigger concepts such as “bad, marijuana, illegal, crab-grass, poison ivy, dandelion” while when “flower” may trigger “good, pretty, tulip, rose, smells nice”.

A speaker can go one step further and choose words that are designed to target specific sub-groups. “Real Americans” or “Real Canadians” are commonly used in contexts to infer that there are those who are not real, those who are aliens or foreigners who are to be distrusted. These code words are terms used within discourse communities to hide racist discourse with a rhetorical veneer of legitimacy.

Words as Pure Value Judgment without Meaning

There is no such thing as “Proper English”. Contrary to the opinion of Jonathan Swift, English is descriptive, not prescriptive. The words one chooses denote a message that one is trying to convey. Code words and loaded language is not improper in the grammatical sense. However, dishonesty is often immoral or unethical — a point George Orwell often pushed — and dishonest use of certain words can and will erode their meaning.

It is use that gives words meaning. If one refers to a duck as a “duck”, the thing that we call a “duck” is a “duck”. If we were to call a duck a “tiger”, “tiger” would become the word that represents a duck. It is the word whose meaning changes, the thing itself retains its inherent property. Calling a duck a “tiger” doesn’t change the inherent duckness of the duck, it changes the meaning of the word “tiger” to mean a waterfowl, the waterfowl does not transform into a stripey jungle cat. Use gives words meanings, and use can take it away.

The words “duck” and “tiger” generally are representative of the same things to everyone, and it would be difficult to take those meanings away, but not impossible. A trite example is the term “life hack”. This term is an analogy to a computer hack, or kluge, that made a computer more useful, and had come to mean “a useful tip for making life more productive”. Through over-use it has begun to lose all definition. Factoid is another example that initially meant a questionable or false fact (the -oid suffix means “like an X but not an X”: android means “like a man but not a man”) but now is often used to mean a small and interesting but trivial fact. The way a term is used sets its meaning, this is why statutes have definition sections.

While use can change the meaning of a term, the values that have been associated with that term through all of the experiences and memories associated with it remain. Factoid remains always less “good, important, valuable” than was a fact. Like “life hack”, the over-use of a word can take a word and remove all meaning, until the word itself becomes useless except as a stand-in for “morally good” or “morally bad”. Consider the words “Healthy” and “Nutritious”.

What does it mean to be “Healthy”? Some might argue that a healthy diet follows the Canada Food Guide or  the Heart and Stroke Society’s Diet, while others may content a healthy diet is solely Vegan, Gluten Free, Organic, or whatever Gwyneth Paltrow eats. What are the other aspects of a healthy lifestyle? If I run marathons but work at a desk, is that healthy? Often, the advice is to do all things in moderation, but clearly not everyone agrees.

Use of “healthy” has been such that the consensus that remains is only “morally good in association with body or mind”. It thus has come to be a value judgment empty of all other meaning. It says only “I approve of this as being morally good”. It may retain some meaning to medical professionals, but this would be a jargon use.

The same can be argued of “nutritious”. Nutrition comes in many forms, there are the big 3 macro-nutrients: fat, carbohydrates and proteins. There are the micro-nutrients, the vitamins and minerals. Something is “nutritious” if it has a lot of nutrients, like a Big-Mac. However, “nutritious” is usually used to refer not to calorie-dense food but to the opposite, foods that are low in macro-nutrients, but have certain micro-nutrients. The chameleon-like ability of “healthy” and “nutritious” to change meaning depending on the speaker have thus modified these terms to stand for moral value judgements.

Commercial Realities

These notions are not new.  Advertising and marketing have long understood the emotional and moral value that attaches to language in pursuing sales of products to consumers. Where there is no market, marketers have not been adverse to creating one. The logic of the market is tautological: if people will buy it then it is good, because things are good if people buy them. This is built on the economic assumption that people are rational actors, but this assumption itself is a simplification necessitated by economic theory.

Perhaps no modern entity grasps this more firmly than Apple. One doesn’t listen to their product announcement, one “experiences the keynote”. The addition of a touchscreen to a smart phone isn’t an improvement on an existing device, it is “revolutionary”. The consumer is not buying a product, but a lifestyle as defined by moral values associated with products.

Consider the “new economy” and the “sharing economy”. Terms like “new” and “sharing” are value-laden terms. As is the use of “empowerment” to refer to everything from pay cheques to hiring personal servants, while essentially either placing a burden that used to rest with a third party onto an employee, or creating a reliance on a product or service that did not exist before. This is a use of the term that erodes the primary meaning, while capitalizing on the attached secondary meaning: the moral value of “empowerment” but without necessarily applying the clumsy primary meaning of giving one power.

The use of these terms in these contexts is effective because the terms themselves are abstract enough that they can be used without the same problems as calling a duck a tiger. Whether the products are inherently good or useful is not relevant, what matters is the association with the positive values and the goods or services. In Trademark law this is usually referred to as capitalizing on goodwill. Arguably, under the same policy rationale of Trademark law, this capitalization of goodwill could be considered free riding on goodwill that hasn’t been earned. It is, however, effective.

Political Goodwill

9/11 changed everything, so goes the rhetoric. There is no doubt nor argument that the attacks on September 11th, 2001 were reprehensible criminal acts of violence. However, it seems odd that 15 years after the attacks they retain such central political cache.

Within 2 years, those born since September 11th, 2001 will begin graduating high school. When this much time had passed since the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Korean War was already over. V-J Day was only 4 years (August 15, 1945) after the attack on Pearl Harbour (December 7, 1941), yet Pearl Harbor is the comparison that is often used, though perhaps imperfectly.

Why does 9/11 remain such a central issue in political discourse? There was terrorism before 9/11. The 1972 Munich Olympics, the Troubles in Ireland, the Air India Bombing and the October Crisis are only a few examples of attacks that affected Germany, Israel, the UK, Ireland, Canada and India. But 9/11 wasn’t even the first terrorism attack in the United States: the 1920 Wall Street Bombing,  the Unabomber, the Oklahoma Federal Building Bombing and the previous World Trade Center Bombing are only a few examples that predated those attacks.

Perhaps the reason that 9/11 has retained its cache is the utility in the term “terrorism”. The repeated showing of those attacks across news media and the use with the word “terrorism” has embedded the term with secondary meaning. Terrorism has become a code word, perhaps the most effective of the examples to come from the attacks.

When France refused to enter the “Coalition of the Willing“, the White House referred to French Fries as “Freedom Fries“. Setting aside that a coalition is a pact among groups operating in their own self interest and it would be difficult to conceive of a “Coalition of the Unwilling”, the renaming of French Fries in this way is indicative of the value diminution of the secondary meaning of words. “Freedom” has a specific meaning that has substantial value. To use the term “Freedom” in order to disparage a person for exercising their freedom to disagree is a use of the term that is contrary to what it actually means. This effectively lowers the value of the term by removing a part of its meaning and the goodwill attached to it.

This is not something new to politics. No government calls an act “An Act to Increase Spying on Citizens“, nor attempts to pass legislation for changing the appointment rules of judges when they can be slipped into a “Budget Act“. It is not a new idea for politicians to adopt propaganda or fear to ease its governing. What is new and troubling is the extent and success of the use of the language of fear when it is unwarranted.

The crime rate in Canada is at its lowest since 1972, the same trends can be found in the United States. Arguably, however, Canadians have never been more afraid. Fear is a useful tool in controlling the actions of people. This is the very rationale behind terrorism, and is reflected in the definition used in the Criminal Code:

83.01"terrorist activity" means ... (b)an act or omission ... (i) that is committed ... (A) in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose ... and (B) with the intention of intimidating the public ... with regard to its security, including its economic security, or compelling a person ... to do or refrain from doing any act ... and (ii) that intentionally (A) causes death or serious bodily harm... (B) endangers ... life, (C) causes a serious risk to the healthy or safety of the public..., (D) causes substantial property damage..., or (E) causes serious interference with  or serious disruption of an essential service... .

This is a broad definition. Arguably it is broad enough to capture a politician who uses the language of fear in order to garner support to disrupt or defund services that they disagree with. The point is not whether or not one would, should or could charge a politician under 83.X, but to raise the broad definition in the act and the key definition: terrorism is an act conducted with the intent to cause fear that would result in a change in behaviour.

The intent of terrorism is thus to cause action through fear, and politicians seem to have recognized this. The continued rhetoric of terrorism is used to justify the militarization of police, and the reduction of civil liberties and constitutional rights.

In order to keep the citizenry afraid, however, it has become necessary to increase the definition of what terrorism is. When the mentally unstable commit terrible crimes such as the shooting in Ottawa this year, the attack on a soldier with a vehicle in Quebec, or when the mentally unstable contemplate attacks such as the Surrey couple arrested for a Canada Day bomb plot, this is dubbed terrorism.

In this context, though “terrorism” is used much more narrowly than the Criminal Code would imply. In the past, these crimes would have been dubbed just that: crimes. The École Polytechnique massacre, for example, was targeted against women for misogynistic political goals and should fall under the broad definition.  Arguments can also be made for the Germanwings Suicide, the Halifax shooting plot,  nor any of the US School shootings in the past 14 years, none of which have been called “terrorism”.

Perhaps the rationale is a recognition that by broadening the use of the term too widely, it will lose the secondary meaning that has become attached, and thus garner less useful fear. As it is used now, terrorism is conducted by Muslims, not “Real Canadians”, but “aliens” and “foreigners” who do not represent “Canadian values”. Under this usage, terrorism is a code word that draws on memories of the atrocity committed in New York 14 years ago.

Honesty and Dishonesty

Honestly used, words and language express ideas clearly and transparently. Clear and transparent expression allows for rational connection and reasoned debate. These are essential values to pursue democratic goals and political ends. Dishonestly used, however, these same words prevent rational discussion by disguising issues as moral value judgement.

Loaded language hides debate by framing the debate in terms that prevent discourse. If I frame my view is healthy, to disagree is to disagree with health. It is heresy. The goal of using loaded language to frame the debate is not to enhance transparency or debate, but the opposite. Because transparency is inherently necessary to democracy, the very use of this language by leaders in democratic societies is troubling. And it is not just our leaders who frame their debates this way, it is all around and a critical audience appears lacking.

The use of terms dishonestly provides a short-term benefit to the speaker, but serves as the traditional tragedy of the commons. The use of terms to mean something other than what they mean removes those terms from availability. No one can describe a meal as “healthy” or a country as “free” if those words no longer have meaning. In effect, all that one has said is “I think this meal is morally superior”, or “I think this country is morally superior”. If that is all that’s meant, then I suppose the use is honest and the mission accomplished.


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