Is calling torture 'torture' political correctness?

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42 Responses to “Is calling torture 'torture' political correctness?”

  1. Rob Beschizza says:

    A ‘term of art’ is something with a very specific meaning. It can’t reference, say, euphemistic or impartial language in general.

    Identifying his newspaper’s euphemistic language for torture as a “politically correct” term of art would also contradict his argument, which is that these apparent euphemisms are in fact a neutral use of journalistic language to avoid taking sides.

    While I understand your point, jere7my, if true it means the NYT admits embracing political correctness–that it moderates its language against political sensitivities–when that’s not at all what its editor here intended to claim. His belief (shared by colleagues quoted in the piece) is that the NYT is embracing impartiality, not political correctness, in its avoidance of the term ‘torture.’

    To me, Keller’s statements read like a corner-office attempt at descriptive literary flair, a suggestion that that people who read too much into ‘political correctness’ and ‘terms of art’ are themselves biase–sorry, “tendentious.” If nothing else, you could call it inartful.

    That Keller might manage to say something different to what he intended (perhaps aiming to reference specific euphemisms rather than the 600-lb ‘term of art’ in the room), despite having editorial control over the person quoting him, would be an entirely apt metaphor for the NYT’s sudden inability to unambiguously describe something.

    • jere7my says:

      Rob, I hear you, but I continue to think my interpretation is the plain one, because: 1) the word “embraced” doesn’t make sense if it’s not referring to a new policy; 2) “politically correct” need not be either pejorative or directed at liberals (though it usually is); and 3) “torture” cannot be considered a term of art, while “enhanced interrogation technique” is the very definition of one. I take “Mr. Keller said that defenders of the practice of waterboarding, ‘including senior officials of the Bush administration,’ insisted that it did not constitute torture” to be an admission that they did institute this change to avoid trampling political sensibilities. In other words, I suggest his response to the headline would be, “No, it’s not. Calling it ‘enhanced interrogation’ is politically correct, which is why we do it.”

      That said, this is a minor sideline. I can certainly agree that Keller used an inelegant phrase that made things unnecessarily unclear, and also that the policy is ridiculous. If the government were to start killing infants in their homes, “infanticide” would not suddenly become a contentious term.

  2. Antinous / Moderator says:

    obfuscatory Bush-era terminology

    In Bush-speak, it would be enhancerated interrogification.

  3. billstewart says:

    The Bush Administration’s Justice Department defined actions as “not torture” if they didn’t result in organ failure or death, which was dishonest to start with. And when a few prisoners in Gitmo got “enhancedly interrogated to death”, well, that’s such an awkward phrasing that nobody wanted to talk about it at all, including the NYT.

    Also, “enhanced interrogation” implies that it’s improved and made more effective. But it’s well-known, especially to the older Army interrogators who learned their specialty as professionals rather than from watching “24″, that torture just gets people to tell you whatever they think you want to hear, so if your objective is actually getting useful information, it’s totally the opposite of “enhanced”. If your objective is to get false confessions, then everybody from the Spanish Inquisition to the Korean Communists thinks it’s fine, and sleep deprivation and waterboarding leave less evidence than thumbscrews.

  4. Tuigim says:

    The media is complicit in the war crimes. They were brought to task by Stephen Colbert at the press conference dinner for neglecting investigative journalism.
    As I watched it play out, the press became a propaganda mouthpiece of the Bush administration and no one asked the tough but obvious questions, like WHY?
    I teach teenagers who have grown up with this type of media and they believe torture is justified because they watched so-called respectable jounalists discuss the advantages of degrees of coersion for the good of the nation. It was wrong and it misled the public and gave support to a corrupt regime.
    War crimes trials are needed for those who were supposed to serve the public and instead sanctioned torture and dressed it up in other words to makE it palatable.
    Everyone who suffered the trauma of torture deserves at the least an apology and to see justice served.
    No more SOA! Fort Benning is an abomination!

  5. manicbassman says:

    rule number 1: the first casualty of war is truth…

    rule 2: one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter…

    and now the new rule 3: one man’s torture is another man’s “enhanced interrogation techniques”

    it’s that phsking simple folks…

    whichever “side” you are on defines whether torture is reported as “torture” or as “enhanced interrogation techniques”… the enemy “tortures” your troops, you use “enhanced interrogation techniques” on your captives… how it is reported depends upon your viewpoint…

  6. Rob Beschizza says:

    Since there is now some contentiousness over the difference between ‘rape’ and ‘rape rape‘, perhaps the NYT should switch to the phrase ‘enhanced lovemaking techniques’ for its ongoing Polanski coverage.

    • Xopher says:

      Rape by drugging someone == “Enhanced Seduction Techniques”

      Beating your children == “Enhanced Childrearing Techniques”

      Killing politicians == “Enhanced Campaign Techniques”

      Blowing up a building with a truck bomb == “Enhanced Renovation Techniques”

      Terrorism == “Enhanced Political Dissent”

      If someone’s willing to embrace those terms, I’ll take “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” from them and just think they’re crazy. Otherwise I’ll know them for the evil, lying sacks of shit they are.

  7. ErikSherman says:

    I have to disagree with you, jere7my.

    >1) the word “embraced” doesn’t make sense if it’s not referring to a new policy; < According to Merriam Webster, embraced can mean "to take up especially readily or gladly." To my reading, Keller clearly meant to embrace a given term.

    >3) “torture” cannot be considered a term of art, while “enhanced interrogation technique” is the very definition of one<

    According to M-W again, a “term of art” is “a term that has a specialized meaning in a particular field or profession.” In other words, you’d have to find general acceptance and shared understanding of the term among practitioners in the field. The Bush administration’s concocted phrase was not a term of art, because the administration created it as a way to deflect criticism by re-defining a term. So there was no time to create general acceptance and common understanding of the term among interrogation professionals. Those who used it probably did so because they were instructed to by the Bush administration, not because it was a technical term of art. Is torture a term of art among interrogators? I suspect it is.

    One problem is that the Times article has only a single sentence from Keller — who I suspect did not edit or oversee the article because he was a source for it. The one sentence is ambiguous within the context, and the “term of art” (a misuse of the term, though perhaps meant in an ironic fashion, though no way to tell) could refer either to “torture” or the Bush euphemism.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Language always imparts some sense of direction to the reader. I.e

    Bob was murdered
    Bob was killed
    Bob died

    All three impart the same information (Bob is no longer alive) but the reader’s sense of what happened (real or imagined) changes radically.

    i.e. if you heard “Bob died” you wouldn’t jump to murder as a cause.

    For good or ill…the word “torture” has connotations attached.

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      the word “torture” has connotations attached.

      A government that has used ‘terrorism’ to describe once apolitical actions ranging from robbery to making charitable donations is in no position to complain about words with pejorative connotations. And dare I mention describing bombing wedding parties as ‘collateral damage’?

    • Brainspore says:

      All three impart the same information (Bob is no longer alive) but the reader’s sense of what happened (real or imagined) changes radically.

      Your example phrases do not impart the same information since “was murdered” carries far more specificity than “died.” Claiming otherwise is like saying “he eats meat” imparts the same information as “he is a cannibal.”

  9. TheLastBrainLeft says:

    Perhaps the Times has wised up and ceased calling “enhanced interrogation” torture because….it’s not torture. The label “torture” is the one whose use needs ceasing because it’s generally used by those who are woefully ignorant of what actual torture is.

    • Rob says:

      Perhaps the Times has wised up and ceased calling “enhanced interrogation” torture because….it’s not torture. The label “torture” is the one whose use needs ceasing because it’s generally used by those who are woefully ignorant of what actual torture is

      After WWII, Japanese soldiers were executed for doing waterboarding, since it was considered torture then.

      What changed?

      • Anonymous says:

        What changed is the “mainstream media” were gradually tamed, to the point that now they won’t “take sides,” even when one side regularly employs the debating tactic of accusing its enemies of its own crimes. For example, stealing elections? Oh those politicians always accuse each other of that, there can’t be anything to it. Questions about Diebold and about ACORN must have exactly equal merit.

        Or in this trivial case, accusing their opponents of being “woefully ignorant of what torture really is.”

    • Brainspore says:

      The label “torture” is the one whose use needs ceasing because it’s generally used by those who are woefully ignorant of what actual torture is.

      Everyone I’ve heard of who does have firsthand experience with waterboarding (from the subject’s point of view) does consider it torture. That includes special forces officers who went through SERE training, former POWs, and right-wing political pundits trying to prove it’s not as bad as everybody says.

      The real reason so many Americans don’t want to believe that “enhanced interrogation” generally means “torture” is that there is comfort in the fallacy that torture isn’t being committed in our names.

  10. Xopher says:

    Christ, what an asshole.

  11. jere7my says:

    I disagree with his stance, but take a look at the quote again: He doesn’t say whether “torture” or “enhanced interrogation” is the “politically correct term of art.” And, in fact, it’s clearly the latter — it is meaningless to refer to torture as a “term of art”, while that perfectly describes “enhanced interrogation”. What he is saying is “I think this Kennedy School study — by focusing on whether we have embraced the [obfuscatory Bush-era terminology] in our news stories — is somewhat misleading and tendentious.”

    • mdh says:

      Greenwalds’ column linked above (and especially the updates t it) really are required reading if you wish to comment on this and not sound like an anus.

      I seem to remind you to RTFA a lot jere7my.

      • jere7my says:

        I did read Greenwald’s article. He’s making the same (and, imho, wrong) interpretation of Keller’s words that Rob is. Could you quote something Greenwald says that contradicts my points?

        Alternately, perhaps you could RTFA, my snarky pal, and reflect on what the word “whether” means. Note that Keller says “whether we have embraced” the PC term of art — a construction that implies that the term of art is the new, embraceable thing. They couldn’t very well embrace a term they’ve been using for decades, could they?

        I’m not defending Keller’s stance in general, which I think is reprehensible. But I fear your righteous indignation is clouding your reading skills.

        Also, anus. Snicker snicker.

  12. jere7my says:

    “Keller’s saying, in effect, that serving the government’s desire for it to stop calling torture ‘torture’ just happened to coincide with the Times’ switch to the impartial language it should have used all along.”

    That is, actually, the opposite of what he’s saying. He explicitly states that they switched because the Bush administration turned it into a political football:

    In an e-mail message on Thursday, Mr. Keller said that defenders of the practice of waterboarding, “including senior officials of the Bush administration,” insisted that it did not constitute torture. / “When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves,” Mr. Keller wrote. “Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and human rights advocates as a form of torture. Nobody reading The Times’ coverage could be ignorant of the extent of the practice (much of that from information we broke) or mistake it for something benign (we usually use the word ‘brutal.’)”

  13. inness says:

    It’s good to see some reflection on this post, because I, too, agree that the word became politicized by the administration once it began denying that what it was engaging in, i.e., inflicting physical and mental pain on subjects, wasn’t torture.
    The real question is whether the Times should or should not have, at that point, decided to take a stance. They, along with the majority of the mainstream media which gave Bush and Co. free reign, sat idly by, trying to play both sides in the nebulous arena of impartiality.
    They should have stuck to their guns and called it as they’d seen it prior to the official stance.

  14. Anonymous says:

    “Every time an establishment hack serves their subjects to preserve their access, God gives a photoshopped kitten 1000 page views.” By that are we to assume you mean writers who use terms such as “establishment hack” in an article in Boing?

    Unregistered is not synonymous with anonymous.

    • Rob Beschizza says:

      “By that are we to assume you mean writers who use terms such as “establishment hack” in an article in Boing?”

      A disestablishment hack, perhaps?

  15. s243a says:

    I think the term enhanced interrogation techniques shows a bias as the words are clearly designed to sell the approach at the same time I think the word torture may show a different bias. The reason is there is a whole spectrum of things that people may consider torture and the application of these techniques could go from very mild to very extreme.

    If the goal is really to be clear, then say water boarding, or sleep deprivation. Describe what happened as accurately as possible rather then debating if euphemisms or inflammatory terms are more appropriate.

    If we wanted to pic a more neutral term perhaps, “extreme interrogation techniques”, “shady interrogation techniques”, “controversial interrogation techniques”. “harsh interrogation techniques”, “tough interrogation techniques”, “strong interrogation techniques”.

    Notice that it is difficult to generalize without showing a bias. However, I think all the terms I chose are less biased then the two terms terms in the article. It isn’t that I think that water boarding isn’t torture, it is that the word torture encompass many techniques which are likely much more extreme then the the techniques used by the US government.

    Anyway, let me finish with an amusing video from supernews:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppaGk0_PSYk

  16. hungryjoe says:

    How is “enhanced interrogation technique” not as politically charged as “torture?” If they didn’t want to take sides, they should just refer to waterboarding as “waterboarding.”

    And anyway, I thought we all agreed it’s only torture if there’s broken bones, organ failure, or death. Bamboo shoots under the fingernails=not torture.

  17. Laroquod says:

    Jere7my is right about the whole ‘politically corect term of art’ thing. Pretty clear to me that Keller meant the opposite of what Greenwald thought he meant with that term. I noticed it independently and found it highly annoying through Greenwald’s article that he chose to flog Keller repeatedly with an unnecessarily stretched reading that had really nothing to do with either Keller’s actual argument nor even Greenwald’s own.

    It ruined my enjoyment of the article since otherwise it was quite excellent and I agreed with it in every aspect. Then I came to this comments section and found that Greenwald is far from the only one who has trouble exercising semantics as distinct from politics. Maybe that’s the real problem here. Both sides are arguing in the same decibel range with equal carelessness.

  18. donniebnyc says:

    The NYT decided to take sides when they stopped using the word torture to describe a practice that for at least a hundred years was universally considered torture by civilized nations. To use the nomenclature of an administration that wishes to normalize actions that were previously considered war crimes is to side with the darkest, most evil tendencies of mankind. It is not objectivity.

    To a moral, civilized people, waterboarding (like electric shocks) during interrogation is torture. Calling it by another name does not change that fact. When the newspaper of record helps an administration, by adopting their language, to obfuscate the reality of their actions that newspaper becomes complicit in their infamy.

  19. Anonymous says:

    According to both AP and NYT styleguides a neutral term used by either party is to be substituted for a controversial term so that the article can remain neutral.

    This became a controversial issue during the Bush era, thus the change. This has become a subject of hate from people that are already suspicious of a majority of media outlets anyway because it confirms their suspicions that “big media isn’t looking out for them”.

    Print media that referenced waterboarding as torture nearly 100% of the time (Mother Jones) or print media that never referenced waterboarding as torture (Townhall) are those that are obviously partisan and these statistics reflect that.

    • william says:

      According to both AP and NYT styleguides a neutral term used by either party is to be substituted for a controversial term so that the article can remain neutral.

      This is superficially plausible, but in practice is idiotic if one side intentionally politicizes a previously neutral term to distort the discussion. Which is exactly what happened here.

      Suppose the Obama administration doubled income taxes, but denied that they were doing so and instead insisted that these were only using enhanced revenue techniques? Would journalists suddenly be obliged to stop using the word taxes? Of course not.

      Taxes are taxes, and torture is torture, no matter what bullshit a press secretary spews.

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        Taxes are taxes, and torture is torture, no matter what bullshit a press secretary spews.

        Torture is when I cut my finger. Enhanced technique is when you fall down an open manhole cover and die. — after Mel Brooks

  20. jonr says:

    Political correctness is in the eye of the beholder and, yes, “torture” is a loaded word. “Torture,” is an immoral act practiced by an immoral enemy against prisoners who are of high moral standard (who resist tortue heroically), while “enhanced interrogation techniques” are entirely justified and completely moral practices conducted by moral people against a not merely immoral but actively “evil” enemy (yes, we HAVE used that very word) who is intent on destroying our very way of life.

    This is clearly an issue of, “Good vs. Evil,” and it is WE who are the “good guys,” as attested to by the fact that God is on OUR side.

    Our leaders and media can’t very well say, “Our people have been subjected by ________ to enhanced interrogation techniques.” A statement like that draws very little attention, much less anger. It sounds clinical, demonizes nobody, and is hardly newsworthy.
    In order to have the desired impact, our leaders and our media must use language like, “Gasp! Our enemy has subjected our people to torture!”

  21. mdh says:

    It isn’t that I think that water boarding isn’t torture, it is that the word torture encompass many techniques which are likely much more extreme then the the techniques used by the US government.

    What you think of torture is irrelevant to the point. It’s off topic.

    What do you think of people who use harsh words to describe their enemies, and nice words to describe their friends who are doing the same things?

    Mendacious is what comes to my mind. Two-faced? Backhanded? False? Manupulative? bought-and-paid-for? … not a single pleasant sounding alternative label in the bunch.

  22. jere7my says:

    Erik, Keller offers a few more sentences in the following two paragraphs.

    It’s my suspicion that readers here were primed for your interpretation by Rob’s post, and that Rob was primed by Glenn’s article, and that Glenn was primed by Jay Rosen’s original tweet: “Did Bill Keller really call torture the ‘politically correct’ word for referring to torture? You tell me: http://jr.ly/una4 ” (which was a rather more open, albeit leading, question). Without that chain of inference, I think the plain interpretation would be mine, and in fact that was the interpretation my wife made when I presented her with the naked quote. (Not a euphemism.) But then, she’s my wife, so her mind is likely to work more like mine.

    Anyway, I think we’ve gone as far with this exegesis as we can without additional clarification with Keller.

    • loonquawl says:

      I actually had fun reading this article, and the reactions here on BB. I’m not deep enough into anglo-american speech-policy to have caught either the considerable leeway given to what exactly the subject of the ‘politically correct’ phrase was, nor did i get the possible subtext about the political leanings of somebody talking politically correct, so the complete issue sailed me by.

      I thought it was akin to the ‘teaching the controversy’ abomination in US culture, and Keller seemed to back me on that – i still do not understand the semantic finesse Rob and jere7my seem to obsess about – would somebody be so kind as to key me in?

  23. Rob Beschizza says:

    Also, it’s true that unregistered is not synonymous with anonymous. If you have a registered account but then comment ‘anonymously,’ our software tells us who you are. If you want to comment in true anonymity at Boing Boing, you should use Tor or something else that conceals the originating host.

  24. jere7my says:

    Shorter me: You could rephrase Keller’s point thusly, and not change his intent:

    I think this Kennedy School study — by focusing on whether we have embraced the politically correct term of art in our news stories, which we have indeed done — is somewhat misleading and tendentious.

    I think the confusion comes from the assumption that “politically correct” is necessarily liberal. But Keller was using it to mean “politically neutral”. His entire justification rests on the idea that “enhanced interrogation” is the politically correct term — by which he means it is the term that raises the fewest political hackles.

  25. EH says:

    I haven’t done the research, but I imagine that every state actor thinks torture is only what the enemy does.

  26. Anonymous says:

    If “enhanced interrogations techniques” were used on a captured US soldier, would we hesitate to call it torture and prosecute it as such?

  27. Anonymous says:

    To quote the Bard ” As Rose is still a Rose…..”

    To quote me “Torture is still Torture…….”

  28. jfrancis says:

    This sounds pretty neutral: interrogation techniques that seek to simulate the sensation of dying.

  29. jfrancis says:

    I wonder how many people who prefer another term for torture are the same people who sneer at other terms for words like ‘crippled’

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