Language of Justification
March 19, 2002
By Pamela Fox
vocabulary is usually what gives it away. Words like "unfortunate,"
or "regrettable," "tough choices," or "hard truths." Because
it's a language of cowardice, it seeks to invoke an image
of toughness. Because it's a language of dishonesty, it seeks
to invoke an image of sincerity. Because it's a language of
callousness, it seeks to invoke an image of thoughtful sensitivity.
Above all, it is aimed solely at the writer's demographic,
which in this country usually means white, professional and
well educated. As such, it is intended not to incite or convince,
but to soothe, to reassure, to lull the conscience peacefully
into slumber. The result is less emphasis on actual argument
or logic (which can be dangerously bracing) than on image
and posturing, on "sending a message" rather than actually
This particular brand of punditry has become especially prevalent
in the wake of September 11, the bombing of Afghanistan, the
detention of several hundred foreign residents, the incarceration
of POWs at Guatanamo Bay, and the reintroduction of the pros
and cons of torture into public discourse. Certain terms are
used so often that many editorial writers could reduce the
risk of repetitive stress injuries if they simply set up macros
for the often used words and phrases that make up what I have
come to call "The Language of Justification."
First of all, there is the opening sentence, always so important
in such pieces. More than one approach is possible, but the
most popular is the appeal to honesty. "Let's be honest" is
an especially common opening. "To be frank," is another option,
but it lacks that inclusiveness, that sense that the writer
is doing nothing more than voicing the deeply felt but rarely
expressed convictions of the common man on subjects like race,
the poor, women, foreigners, Moslems, etc. More appropriate
possibilities include, "Let's be frank, folks," "Tell the
truth!" or, if the writer intends and especially down-home
appeal, "C'mon, fess up!"
The message this opening sends is that that voicing of certain
opinions on, say, minorities or ethnic profiling, or the use
of torture on suspected terrorists, or American prison conditions,
is not, in fact, bigoted or brutal (which are bad things)
but refreshingly honest (which is a good thing). People who
disagree are denying what any normal human being would feel
in their hearts, and are therefore either dishonest about
their own feelings or irredeemably out of step.
An alternative favored by conservatives is the aggressive
approach summed up by invoking the term "moral equivalence."
"Moral equivalence" is a form of moral insanity in which the
mass killing of unarmed, dark-skinned, Arabic or Spanish-speaking
civilians by US funded and trained terrorists is considered
as terrible as the mass killing of unarmed, pale-skinned,
English speaking civilians by Arab funded and trained terrorists.
The term carries with it such a freight of assumption that
merely using the expression in the first paragraph can label
anyone who challenges it part of the problem that the writer
is viewing with such grave concern.
For those who prefer to call themselves liberals, there is
the option of flashing one's credentials in the first sentence.
"As a longtime liberal..." is short, sweet, and to the point,
but if you want a more intimate approach, something along
the lines of "Please understand, I am a liberal!" conveys
just the right sense of truth torn from a reluctant and bleeding
heart. Whether one chooses the breezy "I-don't-have-to-prove-myself-to-anyone"
approach of the veteran, or the anguished cry of a recently
mugged leftist who's decided that Murray and Hernstein were
right, the rationale is the same. "I'm one of the good guys!
I can't be a callous bigot!"
The next step is to address the opposition - a slightly complex
problem because what the opposition is supporting are often
ideals like racial and religious equality, the humane treatment
of convicts and prisoners of war, the presumption of innocence,
attorney-client privilege and other concepts perceived as
the basis of civil and human rights. These things must be
dismissed not directly, but obliquely and with at least the
semblance of a respectful bow, however mocking that bow may
"Politically correct" is the most commonly used term, which
while not quite as hostile as "moral equivalence," is still
instantly dismissive. It's wise for a writer to mix in a little
variety and nuance, however, so there are many other phrases
available that are every bit as effective. "Noble words,"
"soft-hearted liberalism," and "idealistic beliefs" are good,
but for sheer originality, columnist Jonathan Alter wins for
introducing the term "abstract goal of non-discrimination"
in his defense last January of the removal of an Arab-American
Secret Service agent from a flight. "Abstract goal of non-discrimination"
brilliantly conveys, not only barely concealed contempt for
the concept of "non-discrimination," but the narrow focus
of Alter's message -which was plainly aimed at people to whom
"non-discrimination" is an abstract.
The aim is to set up the image of the opposition as good-hearted,
but ineffectual and out of touch with reality. These terms
function as a kindly pat on the hand, a preparation for the
writer squaring his jaw and invoking "tough choices," "hard
truths," "harsh realities," and "brutal facts." Polite fictions
like due process, The First Amendment, and the Geneva Conventions
are all very well in time of peace, but "it's a new world,"
"times have changed," and "we to face a new reality" in which
"the balance of freedom and security must be thoughtfully
reassessed." Those who insist on clinging to those silly ideals
once considered essential to American freedom are "so
A big part of these "harsh realities" is the negative impact
that rejecting those September 10 ideals will have on certain
individuals, both inside and outside of our country's borders.
This impact must be acknowledged with words calculated to
lowball its actual severity. The idea is to project an air
of restraint that will provide a marked contrast to those
arm-waving civil libertarian types who get so hopelessly neurotic
about abstract goals. For instance, being detained or deported
because of one's ethnic background, or being fired or blacklisted
for being too forthcoming in one's opinions about our foreign
policy is "inconvenient." Imprisonment, deportations, and
blacklists can also be "regrettable," "unfortunate," "necessary,"
"understandable," "unusual," "inevitable," "troubling," "tragic,"
and (to express disapproval) "deplorable," as can civilians
getting in the way of cluster bombs, flame throwers, tanks,
or nuclear warheads.
It must be kept in mind the words listed above do not refer
to the bombings of civilians by America's enemies. For such
cases, the appropriate terms are "terrorist," "insane," "bloodthirsty,"
"Hitlerian," "incomprehensible," "satanic," "ungodly," and
"cruel." The wise pundit, when viewing a trench full of dead
civilians, makes sure to find out the uniform, language, and
allegiance of the soldiers responsible. Otherwise, you might
commit "moral equivalence" by uttering a sulphurous denunciation
of the enemy's barbarity and the impossibility of dealing
in civilized manner with animals who perpetrate such atrocities
when you should, in fact, be deploring this "regrettable incident"
with an expression of pained dignity and expressing the hope
that someone will look into it soon.
Once all the above bases have been touched it's time to wrap
up the piece. An approach especially dear to desk-jockies
is invoking the image of a cigar-chomping cop or soldier cocking
his weapon and throwing out one last understated wisecrack
to his followers before leading the charge into battle. "It's
a tough world, let's deal with it!" or "Nobody said this was
going to be pretty," are two possibilities. Others favor a
less combative, more paternal stance, that of a parent tenderly
concluding a heart-to-heart with a tearful child about the
stern realities of life - "Wishful thinking won't do it,"
or "It's time for us all to grow up."
Either way, the writer closes with the healthy, righteous
glow of someone who has successfully painted his opponents
as inept and na´ve without going through the sordid process
of directly grappling with any hard issues.
How else, after all, can you defend the indefensible?