Language as a Smoke-Screen

It’s long been accepted that political language is often filled with obfuscatory phraseology, meant to deceive people into believing one thing is true when, in fact, the actions behind the language imply the opposite. Vagueness in language is often employed in order to serve as a smoke-screen for deceit. For instance, take the following passage:

Plan for a Healthy America

“We now face an opportunity — and an obligation — to turn the page on the failed politics of yesterday’s health care debates… My plan begins by covering every American. If you already have health insurance, the only thing that will change for you under this plan is the amount of money you will spend on premiums. That will be less. If you are one of the 45 million Americans who don’t have health insurance, you will have it after this plan becomes law. No one will be turned away because of a preexisting condition or illness.”

— Barack Obama, Speech in Iowa City, IA, May 29, 2007

There are various forms of obfuscation employed in this speech snippet, taken from Obama’s campaign website. First, he begins stating we have an “opportunity” that is in fact an “obligation” to do such-and-such. Opportunities are not obligations: opportunities can be taken or ignored, signifying they are, in fact, optional. By beginning with the word “opportunity,” Obama makes what is in fact going to be mandatory seem optional, which is a much nicer state of things than mandatory compulsion. It is a trick to make people believe they still have freedom to choose when, in fact, choice will be taken away from them.

The next obfuscation is the phrase “to turn the page on the failed politics of yesterday’s healthcare debates.” It is a phrase characterized by opacity: what does “failed politics of yesterday’s healthcare debates” mean, anyway? Does it mean we’ve been talking about it too much? Too little? In the wrong way? When was “yesterday”? In context, one might realize he is likely speaking about Hillary Clinton’s failure to get a single-payer healthcare system in place during her husband’s presidency. So the phrase was meant to mudsling without naming names, so that Obama could engage in character-bashing without being pinned as a character-basher. Again, language has been used to deceive.

The rest of the speech is an exercise in half-truths. His plan covers every American (false: some Americans will be covering other Americans who do not currently cover themselves and fall under some income demarcation, while some Americans who choose not to be covered will be forced to cover themselves. A “plan” cannot actively ‘do’ anything). He asserts your premiums shall be less — leaving out the hidden costs of co-pays, waiting lists, lower-quality care, intrusive programs into lifestyle and diet to be employed to make sure you’re not costing the system ‘too much,’ higher prescription prices, lower financial incentive by professionals to do research, higher costs of ‘optional’ care, etc.

If you are one of the “45 million Americans” (likely an inflated, rounded-up number) who doesn’t have health insurance, you shall ‘get it’ after Obama’s plan becomes law. You shall get it, indeed—some shall be getting a large bill they before with which they chose not to be burdened, for whatever reason.

Language has long been used in this fashion, and shall likely continue to be so used. Language plays a large part in how far we allow the government to intrude into our lives — if we are made to believe we still have freedom, our civil liberties can be degraded, one by one, and no one will notice until it’s too late.

That’s why Sandy’s reporting on the degradation of the Second Amendment taking place in the lead-up to the Supreme Court hearing on the latter is so very important. Allowing the government to search and seize without a formal warrant is a dangerous precedent. It can have implications, the most frightening of which do not involve arms: the government feeling free to break and enter as long as lip service is paid to public health and welfare.

We must be vigilant. And we must understand that our civil liberties were laid down as such for well-thought-out reasons, by people with experiential and/or academic knowledge on the darker nature of government power-mongering.

“Obese”, “Fat”, and so forth

Red 3 has a great post on the euphemisms that are used to “walk around” the fat person in “the room” (specifically, he referenced some well-known dating sites).

“Big,” “Heavy,” “Thick” and others are trotted out to soften the “blow” of our bodies. Overweight or Obese are suggested as polite ways to refer to us. Simply calling us fat is entirely out of the question. Fat is a bad thing, you see, so it wouldn’t be nice to call us that. So they come up with other words to use to call us fat while emphasizing how awful our physical state is.

We also have, of course, today’s breaking news that Wired.com has “defined” the Fatosphere thusly:

Fatosphere n. A blogosphere of the obese, by the obese, for the obese. Often designated “no-diet zones,” fatosphere blogs seek to counter medical claims that obesity is a health epidemic.

Many others have gone over the obvious logical fallacies in this definition (incompleteness (“..blogs seek to counter…”) one, assumption (“…by the obese, for the…”) another, etc). But I’m going to talk more about words, here.

Words are powerful. Orwell has a great essay called “The Politics of the English Language” which expose various so-called “mental vices” engaged in by many writers and orators, especially during argument. Later on, Orwell goes to explore the dangers of political doublespeak (a descriptive term coined by him in his novel, 1984). We’re familiar with words that have changing implications, and even definitions, or words that have different outcomes than their implications. For instance, “fairness” at times leads to unfair outcomes, “justice” has been fashioned into a tool of punishment for unpopular voices, and so forth.

So what kind of implications are drawn forth from the words “obese” and “fat”?

Currently, though it has not been so forever, “obese” has come to mean a medical condition of the afflicted. One is afflicted by the syndrome of obesity, and the syndrome of obesity is an affliction to be rectified, or at least ‘managed.’

Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, begins its definition of obesity in such a manner:

Obesity is a condition in which the natural energy reserve, stored in the fatty tissue of humans and other mammals, exceeds healthy limits. It is commonly defined as a body mass index (weight divided by height squared) of 30 kg/m2 or higher.

Although obesity is an individual clinical condition, some authorities view it as a serious and growing public health problem. Some studies show that excessive body weight has been shown to predispose to various diseases, particularly cardiovascular diseases, diabetes mellitus type 2, sleep apnea and osteoarthritis.

It follows with a bevy of unsupported claims and assertions, and cites from the three or four sources most cited in the War on Obese People (Nurse’s Study, CDC 2004 figures are two) — interestingly, the same sources that have come under the most fire for possibly (or definitely, in case of the CDC numbers) “cooking the books.”

“Fat,” however, is actually more precisely descriptive in a scientific manner. “Fat” people have a larger store of adipose tissue on their bodies compared to some baseline norm. No one can argue with that: I have more adipose tissue than my fiancee, he has more than his daughter, she has more than our cat, and so forth. “Fat people” mean people who have more fat on their bodies compared to some baseline norm, usually some idealized version of the body, defined by the culture, medical professionals, the government, or whomever is the current socially accepted authority.

And while I engage in calling myself a “fat person,” specifically because I’m defined as such by the government, with which comes the various prejudices of daily life at this point in human history, I think it’s important to realize that this term is comparative in nature, and is descriptive only when there is some baseline norm. When finally the conflict of interest so present in much modern-day obesity research becomes scientifically unacceptable or popularly proven wrong (since much of it is already proven wrong, it just isn’t yet popularly acknowledged), the idea of an “ideal” weight will become obsolete, and we’ll have nothing on which to base our comparisons.

Such as it should be: fat people are people with normal bodies, which can be sick, healthy, sedentary, active, attractive, unattractive, hygienic, unhygienic, taken care of, abused, ad infinitum.

Perhaps the “fat” as a group-term should also eventually go the way of “obese,” as another loaded word which is, ultimately, a false description. We should certainly not meet group-terminology with more group-terminology. And while we need to fight the good fight and give our fight a name (which necessitates grouping our voices), eventually we’ll need to shed the “fat” as well as the “obesity,” so to speak, should we ever be seen as equal members of the culture, just the same as everyone else.