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The Language of Justification
March 19, 2002
By Pamela Fox

The 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 communicating.

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 actually be.

"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 September 10!"

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?

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