Thursday, February 14, 2008

Torture is torture, except when it's news

The issue of word manipulation in politics and media is really Glenn Greenwald's claimed territory, but I can't let this week go by without commenting on it. Why? Because I heard a short news clip from the BBC about the six Guantanamo prisoners who have finally been charged with some sort of crime. And the broadcaster did something that made me want to break things: he said that one suspect's confession was under question because it had been gained using "the controversial waterboarding technique," a phrase that news media have universally decided is an acceptable way to refer to torture.

By not calling waterboarding torture, news media around the world are complicit in the US government's flagrant violations of the Geneva Conventions and the ease with which they discard their humanity. By not simply saying straight out that acts such as waterboarding are wrong and evil, news media are pushing a pervasive doublethink on populations around the world. This is where we get our information--if the BBC doesn't call it torture, it must be at least debatable, if not perfectly okay, to partly drown people in order to make them say things. Must be okay, then, to deprive them of sleep, give them electric shocks, kick them, pull their hair, herd them into camps designed to cut them off from families, cultures, and societies, and then gas them. What the hell is the difference?

We're all familiar with the idea of doublethink and how it has infiltrated our news outlets and common culture. We're also familiar with the tricks politicians use to make their atrocious positions more acceptable. We all know, here on a blog devoted to language use, that words can be used to manipulate and trick and redefine how we think. Oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is "energy exploration." The Refuge itself is made more vague by calling it ANWR. Coal gained from blowing up pristine mountains and leveling them is a source of "clean energy." Global warming is now "climate change" (although I think that one backfired a little bit). And torture is a "vital interrogation tool."

It is unacceptable that news media play along with these tricks, just to keep the Bush administration happy. Pollution is pollution. Coal mining is filthy and destructive. Compassionate conservativism means absolutely nothing. And torture is torture.

The administration claims, as we all know, that they need permission to use these techniques to preserve our national security. What sort of security are we talking about? Our simple physical existence? What kind of physical security do you have if you've sold your soul to the devil (sorry for the melodrama)? What could possibly be more important to our national security than preserving our humanity?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Looking for Real Words

So I missed out on my promised Thursday post last week. A teething baby, a house full of guests ... ack.

There are a number of minor language topics on my mind this week: politically correct terms, thoughts on The Golden Compass series, questions of mass language manipulation. But the most recent one to come up is one of those niggly little issues that annoys me like a mosquito buzzing around my half-asleep ear every time I turn the light out.

I'm looking for words for two concepts that, as far as I know, don't have real words. The first is one I heard for the first time this week: heterosexual life partner. This, I'm told, is something like what a bosom friend used to be, except we don't really use that phrase anymore outside of bra shopping. My younger sister has one, and another old friend has one. But what an ugly thing to call the person you consider to be more than a best friend but less ... attached, shall we say, than a spouse! Besides which, to me it can be confused with the relationship of heterosexual people who live as spouses but aren't married.

In fact, I hate the word "partner" for describing that kind of relationship. It sounds so much like a business arrangement, nothing romantic or hopeful or optimistic in it, really.

Anyway, any good suggestions for heterosexual life partner?

The other is a little more complicated. It's a writing issue. I'll try to explain.

Sometimes you write a scene in a story, or go into a long thought-chain in an essay, in which the character or narrator is meant to be in a particular place -- this especially comes up in travel writing. And you get caught up in your narration or thoughts on the character or whatever, and your words go on long enough that the reader forgets where you are meant to be. When this happens, bringing the reader back to that place can be a little jarring.

So when you're revising, or someone's editing for you, you need to put in little placement reminders. For example, I was working on a colleague's essay about Cuba. She was describing sitting at an outdoor restaurant there, and was writing about Cuban economics and people's personal career situations and so on. She thought it went on too long, but all she needed was a little reminder that we were sitting in the restaurant: "The waiter brought us beers and I shifted the milk crate I was sitting on to let an old woman pass" or something like that.

I find these lines really important, and for myself I made up a shorthand name for them. I call them 'locator lines.' But I'm thinking there either must already exist a good term for them, or someone can come up something a little shorter or more poetic. Any ideas? If I haven't explained very well, please say so.