Euphemism Treadmill

It’s said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is especially true in the context of words and the meanings they convey. Words convey our thoughts. However, very often our thoughts also influence our words and expressions. Euphemism is a great example of how thoughts influence our choice of words. This leads to the so-called euphemism treadmill. On a treadmill, we seem to be making progress as we keep walking but we are indeed staying at the same place without making an inch of progress. So too, words & expressions describing people or events may change without altering the underlying reality.

Here are a few examples:

Last week I attended a conference in Delhi……No, sorry, it was a conclave. Isn’t it something special? One may wonder how a conclave differs from a conference. Conclave, according to dictionary, is a private meeting of a limited number of  people of similar backgrounds. I have attended seminars, workshops, conferences and now a conclave too. I do not see any big difference in any of them. They are all mainly meant for networking besides having a nice time with special lunches and so on. It helps to rejuvenate or recharge yourself as you get away from your daily grind. If conference, conclave, meeting, seminar or workshop mean the same  why do we have so many words? I guess it’s a human tendency to keep inventing new names for the same activity to differentiate oneself from others or other groups.

Our obsession with words and the concepts they convey gets too ridiculous at times. Take, for instance, the word toilet. It became a bathroom to start with, then turned into a wash room and finally a rest room. The expression rest room is even more ridiculous since it’s the last place one would think of for rest or relaxation! It’s our desire to appear sophisticated that makes us come up with an euphemism. But soon the new word gets tainted by what it refers to. Hence the search for yet another euphemism to replace the old one continues. This is an endless process with no net progress.

To take another example, a handicapped person became a disabled person and since this was also not acceptable, it changed to ‘ differently-abled’. This is perhaps well-intentioned. However, I wonder whether it has made any difference to our attitude to the disabled.

Look at the renaming spree of streets by obsessive politicians. It’s laughable. In Chennai, long time back, the government of the day decided to change the names of streets which had caste connotations. For instance, Dr Ranga Chary Road became Dr Ranga Road. But what about Dr Nair Road? Logically, it should become Dr Road, right? Well, mercifully it did not happen and the original name was retained. But I believe Brahmin Street was renamed as Street. I wonder if  it’s a fact. All the efforts at renaming streets has not made any difference to the caste realities and the associated politics.

What was a slum at one time turned into a ghetto which in turn became a more respectable Inner City. Has the reality of people living under subhuman conditions changed? No chance.

A negro has turned into Black American as if to bring parity with white American status. But soon this also became offensive and today they are referred to as African-Americans.

Another euphemism which falls in the same category is the acronym CRY. Originally, the acronym meant Child Rehabilitation & You. It was renamed aptly as Child Rights & You to reflect the sacred rights enshrined in our Constitution.

Politicians, the world over, use euphemisms, to exploit the emotions & sentiments of gullible masses. We are all familiar with George Bush’s infamous descriptions of Saddam Hussein’s stockpile of arms as Weapons of Mass Destruction. Using just one euphemism over and over, he got himself the moral authority to invade Iraq.

In India, as the word Hindutva got tainted, the Hindutva brigade now call themselves nationalists or patriots.

Communism became socialism and then democratic socialism for more respectability. Capitalism, likewise,  became Capitalism with a human face, whatever that meant. This is a clever jargon from Capitalists to give an impression that they are not cornering wealth and exploiting the poor.

Hitler’s genocide of the Jews got a respectable name – Ethnic Cleansing.

Military jargon also keeps changing to dilute truth. For instance what is Friendly fire? What’s so friendly about firing? This expression is used when you want to convey the news of a soldier being killed by his own men. Collateral damage is a nice expression to say that a lot of innocent civilians died when a military action was undertaken.

Is this euphemism Treadmill leading to real change in our cultural & moral attitudes? No chance. It’s a form of self-deception, as evolutionary psychologists say. That’s why the treadmill metaphor is used. On a treadmill, we keep walking briskly without going anywhere.




Published in: on July 22, 2017 at 11:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Self-Deception and Cognitive Dissonance

Can you hold two completely opposing or conflicting thoughts in mind at the same time and still be in peace. Not a chance. Human mind needs a resolution of conflicting points of view to maintain equilibrium. Otherwise it will be under tension. This is true of important existential issues as well as trivial day-to-day issues. To take a trivial issue first, consider our current political discourse. People who supported PM Modi after he took over as PM go all out to defend him even on an issue like demonetization which is hardly defensible. When you already have a mental picture of Modi as a pragmatic PM, you cannot entertain another conflicting idea of the same man taking politically motivated decisions. How does the mind resolve this conflict? It will ignore all facts of the case and defend someone who cannot be defended. Likewise, people who supported AAP in the beginning have every reason to feel disgruntled later based on his performance. However, they resolve the conflict in their minds by inventing new meanings to his actions. Basic point here is that the human mind can function in peace only when opposing points of view are resolved. If this happens without a proper inquiry this is self-deception?

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state where two conflicting thoughts trouble the mind. This is often resolved by self-deception.
In a way one buys peace, however temporarily. Let me give an everyday example. Traditionally we are all conditioned from childhood to believe in God. But then as we grow up, our education makes us doubt this belief. This is a classic case of cognitive dissonance. I went through this phase. Every time  I went to a temple, my doubting mind which is educated would tell me: “Can’t you see how you and many others are wasting time in the name of a blind faith?. At the same time if I skipped any ritual enjoined by religion or  tradition, my innocent mind would quip: “Hey, you’re missing out on something important in life. Don’t be misguided by your science education”. The resolution came late  in my life after setting up a proper inquiry into all issues. Now whatever I do, I do with clarity and awareness. The point I’m trying to make is very simple. Can we resolve conflicts without self-deception? If we can’t, we end up leading lives without any direction. To resolve conflicts, we need to set up an inquiry and study all points of view objectively. The inquiry, in the particular example cited above, can either lead one to becoming an atheist or a firm believer. It may be right or wrong. But at least the internal conflict is resolved and one lives in peace and without cognitive dissonance.

Here are a few more interesting, if trivial, examples of self-deception and Cognitive dissonance in our daily lives. Let us say that our dietician convinces us to take a low-fat, low-carb diet. But then when we see a spread of yummy cakes and ice creams on a table in a wedding party, our mind is in a state of conflict or dissonance. How do we resolve it? We eat it anyway and justify that saying things like: “We live only once. Let us live it up. In any case, exceptional violations of diet rules should not matter”. This is a classic example of post hoc rationalisation. That is, you do a forbidden act and then find ways of justifying the act.

The other day I was reading an article on American history (after the 2nd world war) which provided the following interesting case of post hoc rationalization: Franklin Roosevelt, after the second world war, uprooted hundreds of Japanese Americans based on a mere suspicion that they would indulge in sabotage. Having committed the atrocities, a govt spokesperson says: the very fact no sabotage has taken place strongly justified the action against them.

Here’s a trivial example of post hoc rationalization: let us say you have missed your favourite music concert you wanted to attend badly. After the event is over, you will perhaps look for every bit of news which will minimise your disappointment. For instance, you will be pleased to hear someone say: “The artist was not in his elements this time….. Also, there was a big traffic jam on the route to the concert hall and it’s good you didn’t attempt to go”. And finally an irrefutable philosophical justification will ensue: “Whatever happens is for the good”.

After all, human mind, in spite of evolution over millions of years, still has several limitations. Let us accept that the human mind is still a work in progress. But an awareness of its limitations helps us to recognise instances of self-deception at least on serious existential issues and take corrective actions.


Published in: on April 22, 2017 at 4:05 pm  Comments (1)  
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