The Death of Euphemism
Why inclusive language in the age of Trump means speaking the ugly truth.
By Sarah Grey • January 3, 2017
Euphemism is dead.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a powerful tool. Euphemism lends itself well to diplomacy: It lets us dance with light feet around difficult truths, lets us throw shade without overtly insulting, lets us quiet the alarm bells harsher statements might set off.
That’s why we can’t afford it anymore—not in the age of President Trump.
There are times when diplomacy is appropriate. This is not one of them. As writers who value our freedom of expression, as human beings who value one another, we need to not only set off the alarm bells but raise their volume.
There are times when diplomacy is appropriate. This is not one of them.
I’m a writer and editor who speaks about inclusive language, so conservatives often accuse me of pushing “political correctness,” of demanding euphemism in place of fact.
Here’s what I tell them: It’s not about euphemism, it’s about power. Who defines the “facts” of a person’s existence? If disabled person is just “cripple with a bow on it,” as one Facebook troll insisted to me, then who gets to decide what is cold, hard truth and what is a slur?
Marginalized groups fight over terminology precisely because control over your representation is a form of power. African American came into popular usage because it names a heritage that, for centuries, those in power did their best to erase. Its adoption was part of a long process of people wresting back control over their lives and their representation.
This is why Donald Trump gets so angry about Saturday Night Live’s mild mockery—it’s a form of representation he can’t control. Having the power of naming means framing the terms of discussion. That can be liberating for oppressed groups. It can also be incredibly dangerous when it’s misused by the groups doing the oppressing, like the neo-Nazis attempting to rehabilitate their brand with the term alt-right, a euphemism the media have been much too quick to adopt. (“Neo-Nazi Accepts White House Post” sets off the alarm bells far more than “Alt-Right Nationalist Accepts White House Post.” It should.)
We in the United States are, of course, experts at euphemizing the many horrors of our history.
Euphemisms become important when the people in power try to paper over those power relations. It’s quite common, for example, for journalists to call things racially tinged or racially charged or just racial when what they actually mean is racist. Scholars Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields call this “the substitution of ‘race’ for ‘racism’”: “Disguised as race,” they argue, “racism becomes something Afro-Americans are, rather than something racists do” (Racecraft, 96–97).
What this does is pretend that the playing field is even and that the problem is “race” itself, putting the blame on difference—and on those different from the speaker—rather than on the power relations that enforce a system of oppression based on that difference.
We in the United States are, of course, experts at euphemizing the many horrors of our history. Think of the 1950s “police action” in Korea, the World War II “internment camps” for Japanese Americans, the “decline” of Native Americans through genocide, or the “officer-involved shootings” that kill unarmed African Americans on a regular basis. The Nazis—the old ones—were masters of this, too: Executions were Sonderbehandlung, “special treatment”; the gas chambers at Auschwitz were called the Badeanstalten, “bath arrangements” (see Berel Lang’s Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide, 93). Alarmingly, Nazi euphemisms are making a comeback among the German far right, as The Washington Post recently reported.
Since the U.S. election, however, the tide of euphemism has risen. Not only are neo-Nazis suddenly the “alt-right,” but white supremacists are “white nationalists,” climate-change deniers are “climate skeptics,” open confessions of sexual assault are “locker-room talk,” and the openly racist, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic Breitbart website is “controversial“—all while hate incidents are up significantly.
We should be extremely suspicious when those who are in power seek to control how they’re represented.
If controlling one’s own representation is about power, then we should be extremely suspicious when those who are in power seek to control how they’re represented. The notoriously thin-skinned Trump has made several moves toward such control: for example, revoking the press credentials of media outlets that report on him negatively (including, for a time, The Washington Post).
While “Call people what they want to be called” is a good rule for writing about those who are marginalized, it becomes dangerous when it reinforces the power of those doing the marginalizing. The thing about that rule is that there’s a bit of an honor system to it, a willingness to take people at their word about their own lives. Nazis and their kind specialize in exploiting that sort of trust: in finding the loopholes in honorable systems (like free speech and elections) and using them to twist those systems into serving their purposes. Extending them the benefit of the doubt by framing the discussion on their euphemistic terms is an incredibly perilous thing to do.
I don’t know what will happen when the Trump regime takes power. I do know that we will, in the coming months, be offered euphemism after euphemism. We can and must refuse. By deliberately using words that name frightening truths—neo-Nazi, regime, climate crisis—we can avoid normalizing a situation that is very far from normal.
Sarah Grey is a professional editor and winner of the American Copy Editors Society’s 2016 Robinson Prize. She writes on food, politics, and language for Philadelphia Weekly, Spoonful, Saveur, Lucky Peach, Bitch, Jacobin, and more and was included in Best Food Writing 2015. She lives in Philadelphia.