Thursday, August 15, 2013

When is a coup d'état not a coup d'état?

The facts are not in dispute. On July 3rd, 2013 troops and tanks of the Egyptian army surrounded key installations, commandos took prime minister Morsi to a Ministry of Defence building and General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi announced that he had removed Morsi from power and suspended the constitution. The army then appointed an interim president. It is difficult to think of a power change in any country that more closely conforms to the classical model of a coup d'état. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it probably is a duck.

Yet the Obama government has refrained from using the term "coup d'état" because to do so would trigger the suspension of military aid to Egypt. This is like refusing to call a crime a crime because to do so would entail the apprehension and punishment of the perpetrator.

This blog is about language, not primarily about politics. But, as Orwell pointed out in "Politics and the English Language" (carried in full on this blog), language is frequently used by politicians to mislead the public. It is crucial that politicians resist the temptation to do so.

This desire to mislead is most noticeable when it applies to violent events of which the public might disapprove. Torture becomes "enhanced interrogation techniques", killing civilians becomes "collateral damage".

The Pentagon and the White House have no monopoly on such abuses of language. There are numerous examples (several of them quoted by Orwell in his essay) of obfuscation by communists in the days when a large area of the world was ruled by them. Even when communist rulers openly boasted of their atrocities, the language used would be twisted to mean something more innocuous by their apologists in other countries. For example, when the communists implemented the "liquidation of the kulaks as a class", this was explained by communists in western countries as being mere social change, with the kulaks merging into the rest of the rural population; in practice, it meant mass murder, as the term itself suggests.

The Nazis also devoted great attention to covering up their crimes with evasive language, for example in the order of Martin Bormann in July 1943 not to discuss an "overall solution" (a euphemism for the Holocaust, which was already well under way) but to talk only of taking Jews in groups "for appropriate labor purposes".

Where violent events take place, it is most important that politicians and the media describe them truthfully. This may be inconvenient or entail consequences that governments consider undesirable, but that is no justification for lies, euphemisms or evasive language.

Governments almost everywhere claim to be accountable and transparent in small things such as the price of paper clips purchased by the civil service. It is even more vital that they behave accountably and transparently when people are hurt or killed. All governments at all times stress that their first responsibility is for the safety of their people; they should practise what they preach.

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